Sunday, June 14, 2009


On May 25, 2009, The Globe and Mail announced the reorganization of its executive team. The newspaper’s publisher and CEO, Phillip Crawley, shared the news with staff in an office e-mail message that was quickly reported elsewhere. In setting the context, Crawley wrote:

“Reimagination-inspired teamwork during the last four years has reinforced the value of a more collaborative way of managing our business.”

There has been a lot of ‘reimagining’ going on lately, it seems. Big-budget movie remakes, for example, are commonly sold as ‘reimaginings,’ both to explain away any discrepancies with their sources and to convince audiences they offer a sufficiently fresh viewing experience. Yet, the term ‘remake’ still suits them, as in no way does it define the quantity of new content, nor the level to which that new content may surprise people.

Crawley’s missive, similarly, uses reimagination as a buzzword, without gaining any meaning from it. For one thing, all teamwork inherently reinforces the value of collaboration; that’s not a matter of reimagining anything.

For another, to be inspired by reimagination means nothing in itself. Inspiration must have a source, not simply the process of imagining or reimagining it.

Indeed, as a buzzword, ‘reimagine’ is often offered with scant (or zero) details to back it up. This is a shame, as the bar isn’t particularly high to begin with: while reimagining involves, strictly speaking, imagining again or anew, it does not necessarily have to lead to a different result at all.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

things we are not allowed to say in the band

I’ve long enjoyed the unpredictable music of They Might Be Giants.  I was surprised but heartened to see the following list featured in their most recent e-mail newsletter, which suggests the band members (or at least their current drummer, Marty Beller) are kindred spirits to buzzword skeptics and nitpickers the world over:

This is the update on “The List According to Marty Beller.”

These are all things we are not allowed to say within the band:

  • too much information
  • off the hook
  • that’s what (s)he said
  • my bad
  • game changer
  • crackberry
  • that’s how we roll
  • I can’t work under these conditions
  • playing the (whatever) card
  • throw under the bus
  • drinking the kool-aid
  • LOL
  • phone tag
  • don’t go there
  • it’s all good
  • it is what it is
  • talk to the hand
  • think outside the box
  • off the reservation
  • oh no you didn’t
  • I threw up a little in my mouth
  • one hundred and ten percent
  • IMHO
  • no worries*
  • jumped the shark
  • voted off the island
  • (anything) on acid
  • (anything) from hell
  • (anything) on steroids
  • literally (unless it’s actually used properly)

Of course the list itself is now on the list.

*No worries enjoys a unique “workplace dispensation” where it can be used with a co-worker to help decompress a work situation.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Some buzzwords never go away, even after it would seem their time had come and gone. One perennial nuisance is ‘extreme,’ which continues to be used with none of the context necessary to give it meaning.

Throughout the 1980s, ‘extreme sports’ became a popular catchall term to describe trendy outdoor activities with a high perceived level of danger, such as bungee jumping. Soon, the term was influencing other elements of pop culture. Rapper Vanilla Ice’s 1989 debut album Hooked, for example, was reissued the following year by a major label as To The Extreme, going on to great financial success. A rock band named Extreme was also doing well at this time.

In 1997, the first Extreme Pita fast-food location opened in Waterloo, Ont. More locations soon opened across Canada, along with some in the U.S., though their Lebanese-inspired healthy fare is not particularly extreme in any of its attributes.

While Sharon Osbourne’s 2005 autobiography was titled Extreme, there has in general been noticeably less use of the term in mainstream branding in recent years. It is likely no longer seen as providing advantageous ‘edge’ over the competition; once everyone is at the extreme, it loses its relative meaning.

Perhaps proving this point, on April 24, 2008, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced it had approved an application for a new TV channel—expected to air “programming from around the world devoted to entertainment, humour, travel, games, science and technology and targeted toward children aged 6 to 17 years and their families”—that will, if launched, be called Family Extreme.

It’s about time for some extreme skepticism.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

road warrior

Some buzzwords are laughable in their blatant attempts to feed selected egos. ‘Road warrior’ is one such label that has been sorely misapplied in recent years.

The term dates back to the 1981 movie sequel Mad Max 2, which was marketed in North America (where most audiences were as yet unfamiliar with its low-budget 1979 predecessor) as The Road Warrior. In this post-apocalyptic action film, Mel Gibson plays a former highway patrol officer who faces off against marauders driving motorcycles, cars and trucks. The hardened protagonist is literally a warrior of the roads.

The violent imagery proved popular; in 1983, a tag team named the Road Warriors debuted in the professional wrestling scene, basing their look on the movie’s wardrobe style. They went on to great success, though motorcycles, cars and roads were not integral components of their performances.

Today, however, any common business traveller can apparently be considered a road warrior. On March 26, 2009, USA Today unveiled Hotel Check-In, an ongoing news series billed as a “road warrior's guide to the lodging landscape.” Notably, the information it provides bears little resemblance to post-apocalyptic accommodations.

On April 17, 2009, Stefania Viscusi, assignment desk editor for Technology Marketing Corporation (TMC), penned the following grammatically dubious passage in an article about phone headsets:

Communications remains key to survival regardless of where professionals are traveling, the availability of laptops, mobile phones and other devices make it possible to be reached from anywhere via a phone call, email or IM.

To ensure these road warriors are always available and can have clear, quality communications each time, the headset becomes an extremely necessary piece of equipment.

If Viscusi is correct, perhaps these salespeople are indeed akin to road warriors. After all, if they didn’t have their notebook computers and mobile phones, she suggests they wouldn’t even survive their daily work experience.

That extent of ego-feeding, one would guess, they neither need nor want ….

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Coherent use of language occasionally requires context to ensure a potentially ambiguous term can be understood. It is particularly galling, then, when a word with multiple legitimate meanings becomes commonly used as a buzzword whose meaning isn’t clear at all.

One example is ‘posture.’ A posture can be a relative position, condition, state, attitude, carriage or bearing, while ‘to posture’ is to strut or otherwise assume an attitude for effect. The buzzword never conveys one of these definitions in particular.

On April 9, 2009, for instance, the U.S. ‘progressive’ website carried a Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) press release titled “Transforming the US Strategic Posture and Weapons Complex tor Transition to a Nuclear Weapons-Free World.” The release refers to “the Administration's pending Nuclear Posture Review.” It is unclear what a strategic and/or a nuclear posture is, leaving it sounding very ethereal.

On the same day, an information technology (IT) news site, Enterpriser, reported on a security company whose software promised to “automatically discover, inventory and assess the security posture of servers, hosts and other devices.” This seems to suggest ‘posture’ is a quality can be measured quantitatively—but none of its legitimate meanings can.

On April 6, 2009, The Toronto Star’s Asia bureau writer Bill Schiller reported that after a North Korean long-range rocket test, “Beijing issued a call for calm yesterday, not criticism – a posture out of step with the rest of the world.” This example is not so much a posture as a reaction or perhaps a sentiment.

In all of these cases, the use of ‘posture’ instead of a clearer, more specific term comes across as, well, posturing.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

advance warning

When phrases are coined to emphasize their own importance, they can end up saying twice what only needs to be said once. An example of such redundancy that has infiltrated many mainstream news stories is ‘advance warning.’

In early April 2009, newspapers around the world reported an impending missile launch in North Korea. According to the Associated Press and The Yomiuri Shimbun, “It was the first time North Korea had given advance warning of a ballistic missile test launch.”

Yet any warning is, by definition, an indication regarding an upcoming event. To warn is to provide a hint about impending danger or difficulty. One cannot warn about past events or, for that matter, the present moment.

In February 2009, following a collision in space, the Calgary Herald reported that Iridium Satellite “had no advance warning of an impending collision between one of its communications satellites and a defunct Russian military satellite above Siberia.”

This is the same as saying the company had no warning.

In a more down-to-earth example not involving an emergency, on April 4, 2009, the Victoria Times-Colonist told its readers about Google’s ongoing data gathering by car-mounted camera, referring to the company’s local employees who “had advance warning that the vehicle was about to pass. Perhaps if Google could provide early warning everywhere, it would face fewer complaints about privacy issues.”

Whether it is referred to as an advance warning or an early warning, the meaning is exactly the same, as to warn is to advise before the fact. After the fact, of course, such an advisory would lose the capability to warn at all.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Trends in one area of study can spawn buzzwords in others. ‘Holistic’ is an example of this phenomenon, with its connotations moving from philosophy to medicine and then to, well, pretty much everything else.

The idea of holism, which has itself become something of a cliché, is that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the opposite of reductionism.

Accordingly, the goal of holistic medicine is to treat a person as a whole rather than just treat one symptom of disease. Practitioners of holistic medicine consider the physical, social, spiritual, emotional and mental aspects of health.

The holistic approach seems to have inspired others to ape it—or at least claim to do so. On March 31, 2009, for example, a press release about telecommunications research described a new study that “provides a holistic view of the Taiwanese communications market by analyzing key trends, evaluating near-term opportunities, and assessing upcoming risks factors.”

Yet for all of these aspects, the report’s conclusion—that the use of fibre-based networks “will increase the size of Taiwan's Internet market by 44 percent by 2013”—sounds more reductionist than holistic. The ‘prescription,’ suggesting that Taiwan’s telecommunications operators should invest in more fibre cabling, seems awfully single-minded, rather than providing multifaceted advice.