“Meaningless Buzzwords”?

By Maeve Maddox

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I read that a political commentator, whom I will not name, asserts that five particular terms are “meaningless buzzwords.” Labeling these particular words “buzzwords” sent me to my language sources to discover whether my understanding of the word is faulty.

Here are definitions from my two main dictionaries.

buzzword: noun, Originally and chiefly U.S. a keyword, a catchword or expression currently fashionable; a term used more to impress than to inform, especially, a technical or jargon term.—Oxford English Dictionary

buzzword: noun, an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen. —Merriam-Webster

To my mind, buzzwords are of two kinds.

One kind—the most common—is a deliberately pretentious term used in place of a more obvious choice. The word is perfectly appropriate in another, specialized context. For example, “granular” for detailed or “optics” for appearances.

But residents thinking about future Sandy-like events need granular specificity.

Optics over ethics never ends well, and being a jerk doesn’t make you a leader.

The other kind of buzzword can be a new coinage, like metaverse. Whereas buzzwords drawn from professional terminology or jargon can be replaced by more familiar words, new terms like “metaverse” must be defined by the earliest writers using them. Nowadays, most readers probably take the word metaverse in stride, but in July 2021, authors of a tech article in the New York Times thought it necessary to explain it.

Remember hearing about “the internet”? Get ready for “the metaverse.”

The term comes from digital antiquity: Coined by the writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, “Snow Crash,” then reimagined as the Oasis in the Ernest Cline novel “Ready Player One,” it refers to a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the analog one in which we live.

As a buzzword, the metaverse refers to a variety of virtual experiences, environments and assets that gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic. –NYT, 7 July 2021.

Buzzwords are a type of jargon. At best, a buzzword describes something new that requires a new definition. At worst, it is the unexpected use of a word out of its usual context with the aim of dazzling or intimidating listeners.

Now for the words that prompted this post.

All the words listed as “meaningless buzzwords” by the political columnist are omnipresent in the media, but they are the usual words for what they denote: racism, bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia.

racism: a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

bigotry: obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices.

xenophobia: fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.

homophobia: hostility towards, prejudice against, or (less commonly) fear of homosexual people or homosexuality.

Islamopobia: intense dislike or fear of Islam, especially as a political force; hostility or prejudice towards Muslims.

The Ngram Viewer reveals an interesting timescape for the words.

The word racism has been a significant presence in printed matter since 1960. It shows a marked plateau in the 1980s, a dip in the early 2000s, and a steady rise from 2010.

The word bigotry shows a decline from 1826 to 2013 and then an uptick in 2014.

The word xenophobia peaked in 2002 and again in 2018.

The word homophobia has been on the rise since 1972, had a slight downturn from 1999 to 2007, when it began a new rise.

Newest of the pack is Islamophobia, which begins a dramatic rise in 1993.

The frequency of a word in the media does not make it a “buzzword.” A buzzword is shallow and ephemeral. When a word begins as a buzzword, like metaverse, and then becomes the principal word to signify an established concept, it stops being a buzzword.

I can only question the commentator’s intentions in dismissing these five weighty words as “meaningless buzzwords.”


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