Buzzwords, clichés, and other shorthands…



Again, I reference the Songbook of Mr Jimmy Buffett (or loosely paraphrasing), “if I’d known then what I know now.”



What is it about clichés that are so seductive, easy to reach for, and use without even really thinking about it? Sure, there are those among us that probably spend hours searching for the right cliché to capture some inner or deeper meaning to an idea, concept, thought, or work-related task; and then there are those who seem to constantly drip cliché after cliché. The latter group, I will call the jargonists (or jargonistas, if you prefer). It’s the first group that I find myself in and are more interesting. Jargonists flood the trade presses and public relations departments of any and all industries. These are the groups of people that create or amplify buzzwords in the hopes of creating a cliché. It wasn’t that long ago when “thinking outside the box” was an existential and philosophical concern, but now my seven year old son is doing it – although luckily this phrase hasn’t entered his vocabulary yet (but it’s just a matter of time before that too trickles down). Anyway, here’s what I see happening:



A great idea or thought is captured, take for instance knowledge-worker (or policy wonk will work too, if you prefer). When Peter Drucker combined these two words to describe the shifting of the very nature of work in advanced economies, it took some time (forty-ish years) but it finally caught on as one of the great buzzwords in contemporary business discourse. The idea, germinating from the late 1940s and 1950s, blossomed into the academic world over the 1980s, and by the 1990s entered mainstream business circle usage as a great buzzword. Now sometime in the past seven years, knowledge-worker has made the further evolution into the status of clichédom. In other words, all of sudden everyone appears to be a knowledge-worker and the original intent (or kernel of a great idea) has been so diluted that it really doesn’t make sense anymore. For example, is the person who takes my order at McDonald’s really a knowledge-worker? Sure, every job, occupation, career, or hobby requires knowing how to do something (that would be the knowledge part I’m guessing). But is that really what Drucker (and many others since) mean behind this idea of knowledge-workers?

Also somewhere along its journey, these greats ideas and thoughts catch on in ever-widening circles of influence and become buzzwords. In my hierarchical way of thinking, buzzwords aren’t quite clichés yet; but rather these are the insider language within any field, profession, or practice. Buzzwords are the shorthand of those in the know. Take for example my mechanic (and I’m by no means mechanically inclined), he’s always throwing out these manly words like carburetors, distributor caps, fly wheels, and other esoteric terms as if I should know what they are and what they mean. I inevitably stop him somewhere in the first few minutes, and ask “OK, Randy, but what does that doo-hickey or thingamabob do or mean.” Sure, I probably violate every rule in the Guy Code by asking what should be obvious – I opted for some other elective in high school other than shop (which in hindsight now may have been a mistake, but at the time I didn’t get it). And he’s patient, and a good friend, and he explains these things to me in a language I can understand. Well, that’s buzzwords in reverse. He takes the time to deconstruct what’s what and why it matters.

But further along the evolutionary path of ideas and thoughts, those buzzwords circulated amongst those in the know become even more liquid and are leaked out to the wider world…or a curious on-looker likes the turn of phrase. However it happens, buzzwords enter the wider world, and they are reborn as clichés.


Wrapping my mind around a cliché

At least once a week I receive an email from a customer or someone in my company asking for me to simplify a process, a document, or a concept. No brainer, right? Jettison the clichés, the technical language, or the business jargon. Well, in my limited experience what this really means is “translate X into a language I can understand, Y.” It’s not a XYZ for Dummies they’re asking for, or a plain English explanation or rationalization; but what they are asking for is something they can understand. I work with two groups of very smart people – and I’m somewhere in the middle, one is a group of medical practitioners and specialists, and the other is a group of highly skilled computer specialists.

And never the two shall meet

What’s jargon in one language, obviously is common vocabulary in the other. But that’s common sense, right? Who is the mythical Mr or Ms Common? I haven’t met him or her yet. But maybe that’s the thing about buzzwords, jargon, and clichés. Which brings me back to the call for plain English. Simplification, yes. English, definitely. Do we leave it up to the Great Decider as to what constitutes plain English?


I digress for an example…

Anyone who has ever had to write a performance review, for example, is probably familiar with Effective Phrases for Performance Reviews. I was surprised to notice that in its most recent version this booklet (and my obviously much older copy) is now bursting out at 256 pages according to This is the ultimate redeemer for any supervisor or manager needing the right way to express positive and negative feedback in a written performance evaluation – NOTE: an older brown-shoe boss of mine told me to never use this in a face-to-face review or evaluation [good advice that I mistakenly erred ONCE in executing.]. Basically, this book is a parade of buzzwords, jargon, clichés, and general business-speak. I know veteran and junior supervisors and managers that lean on this book as a crutch. Why? It really is helpful to be able to express that Joe is a complete waste of human flesh in thirty-two different ways and styles without making Joe to be a complete mismatch for the organization. And on a slightly deeper level, the words, phrases, and CONTENT of this book are how most human resource departments are configured to decipher meaning from these reviews. Ultimately (and more pessimistically) the quantitative or dollar value assessment of the review is what matters. Not to say that the qualitative or subjective analysis of performance doesn’t matter. It’s just harder (or in some cases) impossible to translate something that is not computable into terms that are computable. And so, we rely on clichés and their spin-offs to add meaning and value to our content-rich knowledge-workers existential dilemma.

But again, that’s just my two-cents.


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