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Buzzwords and Pet Phrases. We hear them and we use them, throwing around language carelessly often not even knowing or realizing what we are saying. It seems as if each year spawns a new list of phrases and the business world is, perhaps, the biggest culprit with a slew of business jargon filling success books each year. And, it seems as if each year I get just a little more annoyed with the repetitious use of these words and how little meaning they actually convey. (Cranky in my old age?)

One of the courses I teach is a Knowledge Management course for the Dominican University Graduate School of Library and Information Science (LIS 880). A few years back, we were working our way through a book – The New Edge in Knowledge. While being a good practical read for the course and knowledge management, uses some of the characteristic terminology of the business world often referred to as buzzwords. The most prevalent offender of the book – “Value Proposition.” I admit ignorance often and play stupid even more. And, I had to admit – I didn’t know what a “value proposition” was prior to reading this book. I might have seen the phrase before and could discern some meaning by the manner in which it was used in the book. But, I couldn’t say I had ever used it nor would have had a ready definition if asked.

I decided to dig around and see what I could find on buzzwords in general. What better place to start than with the “value proposition?” I looked it up. But, I didn’t look it up in a dictionary because you won’t find it there. I “Googled” the term to see where it would appear. Of course, I got a slew of business-related literature back and played around with my search terms before coming across Social Storytellers, which referenced Wikipedia to give me the following definition:

“a promise of value to be delivered and a belief from the customer of value that will be experienced.

What does that actually mean? When you break it all down, it means I promise to give you something and you believe I will give it to you. Couldn’t we just say “promise” or do we need the added complexity (“complexity” is a buzzword) of “proposition?” Is it not enough to say promise or do I need to “propose value?” Why this extra term hasn’t improved the clarity of the words at all! In fact, it has made the whole concept a little more ambiguous. I am reminded of the late comedian, George Carlin, and his routine on language or euphemisms. See Carlin on Language at Sribd for a written version. Carlin thought, or proposed, we only complicate language as the decades elapse. For example, one of his pet peeves covered what was once referred to as “shell shock” and has since become the complex “post-traumatic stress disorder” (which is now shortened to PTSD for simplicity). Though his routine is for the purpose of comedy, I think Carlin often had a point beyond making us laugh.

It seems, and I am not surprised, I am not the only one annoyed or tired of hearing all of these catch phrases over and over again. In digging around on the web, I found a number of references to buzzwords. Marketing Jive has a list of the Top 100 Marketing Buzzwords of 2011 and has been maintaining a yearly list since 2007. The website references an external post – Buzzwords Gone Bad – that spawned the list. From Marketing Jive:

Do you ever get sick of hearing new buzzwords and the propaganda that goes along with them? While some terms are of interest, quite often “buzzwords” become over used and well frankly over used. Depending on the industry you are in, the number of buzz words that you hear in a day can vary from a couple to many. I happen to work in the marketing industry, specifically the online (search engine) marketing industry. Do you know how many buzzwords I hear and read about everyday? Am I the only one tired of hearing about the “blogosphere”, “Panama” or about “thinking outside of the box”? (Actually I like that one). Remember that a buzzword is a trendy word or phrase that is used more to impress than explain.

No, you’re not the only one tired of this. Others (to include myself) are as well. BuzzWhack is a site devoted to “de-mystifying buzzwords” and proffers a warning in their header:

WARNING: If you can use more than three buzzwords in a single sentence while keeping a straight face, this site is not for you.

This has become so prevalent that typing “buzzword” into Google will get you a slew of results – mostly detailing the annoying nature of buzzwords. A graphic design blog (blog is a buzzword) titled HOWdesign posted Most Annoying Buzzwords earlier this year. Some of my most hated made the list:

  • Branded
  • Leveraged
  • Value Added
  • Synergy
  • Innovative

And as though anyone would need more proof or coverage of the topic, Wikipedia even has an extensive list under the entry – a List of Buzzwords.

Language should be efficient. In fact, the reason our prehistoric ancestors began using a language of words as opposed to continuing the use of grunts and wild hand gestures (with hairy chest-thumping being the earliest form of the exclamation point) is because it was more efficient. So are we seeing the devolution of language, intelligence and our species? It seems when we come up with a term such as “value added” or “value proposition” the answer could be affirmative. Value Added: If it doesn’t have value, don’t add it. Value Proposition: Proposition doesn’t really need to be qualified. I know what it is and so do you.

But just so I can “leverage” this argument and my words, let me give you my “value added” “value proposition” that really lacks “innovation” but has some good “synergy:” Think about what you’re saying and if you can’t define it or explain it, then don’t add to the complexity and ambiguity of spoken language. Your just using words you heard someone else use that you really don’t know the meaning of – using words just for the sake of words. If I want to hear people talk without saying anything meaningful, I’ll turn on the news.