I Hate Buzzwords: A Rant

I make no bones of the fact that I harbor an intense dislike of buzzwords. The thing is, I have a hard time explaining why I dislike buzzwords so much.

There’s one in particular I’ve been hearing more often over the past few years which may be the worst one yet:

Teamness.

It’s such an egregiously nonsense word! However, it offers a perfect opportunity to clarify my position.

I’m not a stickler for grammatical purity. I love bending and breaking the so-called “rules” of grammar and I’m fascinated by how language evolves through use. Vernacular, colloquialisms, argot—these things delight me. Buzzwords, though, aren’t any of these things.

I want to talk about three aspects of language that come into play here: purpose, sound, and personality.

The purpose of language is to convey or obscure meaning. The more precise your words, the better able you are to convey your meaning with more details and nuance, or obscure it more effectively. When you make up a new word, it implies there isn’t already a word that meets the need as precisely as you want. The problem with buzzwords is they’re almost always completely unnecessary. They never mean anything new, or more nuanced, than perfectly good words and phrases that already exist.

“Teamness” doesn’t mean anything other than “team spirit” or “esprit de corps”—the willingness and desire to be part of a team. We already have perfectly good ways to express this meaning. There’s no need to create a new, buzzy word just to say this. Indeed, “teamness” has less precision, less nuance, less color.

It’s like the joke about elephants and bees:

Q: Elephants have a specific sound they make to warn other elephants, “Hey, there are bees here! You should stay away!” Why don’t humans have a sound they can make to say that? Elephants are so much smarter than us!

A: Humans do have a sound they make to say that—the sound we make is “Hey, there are bees here! You should stay away!”

Buzzwords are the equivalent of people trying to trumpet like an elephant. It always sounds ridiculous.

Words should sound real. They should sound like something that evolved organically through everyday use. Unless you’re Shakespeare or Lewis Carroll and you make up words that sound ridiculous on purpose to make you laugh. Or the word is ugly and shocking. Or tender and heartbreaking. The sound of the word should relate to its purpose—the sound does some of the work to convey the meaning, underneath the level of conscious understanding, speaking straight to our emotions.

Buzzwords, as a rule, sound fake. Their sound never has anything to do with their intended meaning. They’re all buzz with no substance.

Finally, words have personalities. Vernacular, colloquialisms, argot—these grow from the unique influences of people, place, and time. They capture the personality of the folk who speak them, or of the specific discipline which requires them. They’re a record of a living, breathing culture. They have subtlety, depth, and specificity.

Buzzwords have no personality. They’re not a unique representation of anything. They’re PR stunts, marketing gimmicks, surface level shiny. They have no depth.

Buzzwords are an insult to the possibilities of language. A reduction of the potential of words. “Teamness” will never better my “esprit de corps” no matter how hard it buzzes.

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