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. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

graphic novel

Some buzzwords are euphemisms deployed to add gravitas to their subjects in an attempt to win greater respect and mainstream use. One that has become common in today’s media is ‘graphic novel,’ an overly elaborate way of saying ‘comic book.’

In the comics publishing industry, it is not a new term, dating back to the 1960s and ‘70s, when a number of collected series and longer original works were occasionally published in squarebound formats and marketed as graphic novels. By the late 1980s, such formats had become part of many comics publishers’ regular output (sometimes marketed as ‘trade paperbacks’).

Today, however, as comics have made their way into bookstores, they are often referred to collectively as ‘graphic novels.’ This adoption of a buzzword has coincided with a substantial rise in the North American popularity of translated manga—Japanese comics that have long been published in squarebound volumes anyway, without any branding differentiation needed for the Japanese market.

The term’s use reeks of elitism, as though graphic novels were for those who would not deign to read lowly comics. This is nonsense; longer-form comics are still comics. And the medium remains itself no matter the particular publishing format. Indeed, many comics are published online today.

The buzzword’s use became particularly galling in early 2009 in the marketing campaign for the movie Watchmen, based on a 1980s comics series. In interviews, everyone involved in the production uniformly referred to the source material as a graphic novel—including its artist, Dave Gibbons. Yet, Watchmen was not originally published in a squarebound format; and its writer, Alan Moore, wrote in 1997 that ‘graphic novel’ was simply “a marketing term that I never had any sympathy with. The term 'comic' does just as well for me.”

Moore notably wants nothing to do with Hollywood adaptations of his work; but one might nevertheless hope Hollywood understood what it was adapting.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Some terms become buzzwords through exaggeration. One example is ‘revolutionize,’ which is currently used to describe many situations that simply do not warrant it.

To revolutionize something is to change it fundamentally. Such events have historically included forceful overthrows of governments (e.g. the French Revolution) and the formation of new economies (e.g. the Industrial Revolution). Today, however, the term is tossed about very loosely indeed.

On March 23, 2009, for example, an article in InformationWeek reported as a matter of fact that “Apple revolutionized the cell phone industry when it introduced the iPhone in 2007.” This is nonsense. The iPhone is a popular consumer device that allowed Apple to become a new player in the industry, but no others were forced out as a consequence, nor was the industry changed at any fundamental level.

Three days later, a review in The Globe and Mail of the animated movie Monsters vs. Aliens claimed, “For over half a century now, 3-D has been promising to revolutionize the movie biz,” but failed to suggest how. All the occasional ‘3-D’ movie requires is that audience members don special glasses for the effect to work—but other than that, their moviegoing experience and the business at large are the same as with ‘2-D’ features.

The shame is this misuse waters down the power of the word, such that when it is used appropriately—as on March 25, 2009, when The Daily Princetonian tentatively offered the headline, ‘New nanofluidics technology could revolutionize genetic analysis’—it risks being utterly overlooked by a jaded readership.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Even in a nominally bilingual country like Canada, nothing makes a handier buzzword than an exotic-sounding French import. One example is ‘premier’ (or its feminine form, ‘premiere’), which is often trotted out as though it were a classy way to say, “We’re number one!”

Confusion can easily result, however, from its ambiguity. The preferred meanings of ‘premiere,’ for example, are a noun and a verb, not an adjective. A premiere is the first performance of a stage production or the first public screening of a movie. The intransitive verb ‘to premiere,’ similarly, means ‘to be presented for its first time.’

A premier, meanwhile, is the first minister of a Canadian territory or province. Yet, the adjectival form can mean ‘first’ not only in time (as with ‘premiere’), but alternatively in importance or in order.

One high-profile annual conference in Toronto, ideaCity, is billed as “Canada’s Premiere Meeting of the Minds.” For clarity’s sake, its organizers would be better off using the shorter ‘premier.’ As it is, newcomers may be left to wonder if it is the first time such an event is being held—which, celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2009, it most certainly is not.

The confusion runs both ways. On Sunday, March 22, 2009, BroadwayWorld ran a story with the headline ‘Modern Muse Theatre Presents Regional Premier of Reclaimed’—yet the accompanying text used the Broadway-standard spelling, ‘premiere.’ The headline was not wrong per se, but given the context, appeared to be a sloppy typo.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


In business, buzzwords can arise from glib attempts to make the daily grind more exciting. Office workers who travel frequently for sales or consulting purposes are dubbed ‘road warriors.’ Corporate initiatives promise to ‘revolutionize’ the way a company operates. And new contacts are asked, “What are your coordinates?”

Coordinates are, of course, a mathematical concept—a set of magnitudes that indicate the specific position of a given point, line or plane. Yet these new business contacts are asking for nothing of the sort; they seek only e-mail addresses and phone numbers, neither of which are determined by coordinate-based systems.

Military organizations that operate in remote regions use coordinates to indicate positions; office workers in cities certainly do not need to, though perhaps they subconsciously aspire to such an exotic working life.

Nevertheless, the buzzword is ripe for unfortunate ambiguity. Private citizens are acquiring Global Positioning System (GPS) devices for use in their cars, while mobile phones and computing devices are being equipped with the same technology.

Soon, all of the glib office workers truly will have coordinates, indicating their precise location at all times. One can only hope, for their sake, they will not be so quick to share such information with every new acquaintance.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


While some buzzwords are used to connote erroneous meanings, others are used in contexts that fail to provide sufficient meaning of any kind. Such is the case today with ‘perspective,’ a noun that, when referring to a point of view, requires context to suggest what that point of view might entail.

An example provided in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary is “a Marxist perspective”—the point of view of a specific ideology. This is sufficient context, given the definition of Marxism itself suggests the nature of that perspective.

Yet, there are many flippant references these days to ‘perspective’ that leave the question utterly open-ended. On March 13, 2009, for example, The Globe And Mail previewed a TV special lampooning recent U.S. President George W. Bush, starring Will Ferrell and co-written by Adam McKay. The article reported:

“Both men went into the project believing Bush should be held accountable, albeit from a comedy perspective.”

Comedy, however, is not a specific idea like Marxism. It does not suggest a single, identifiable point of view. Thus, the term ‘perspective’ adds nothing here; the writer, Andrew Ryan, could have used the simpler phrase, “albeit through comedy.”

Two days later, The New York Times’ coverage of the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, featured an interview with filmmaker Joe Swanberg. Discussing his latest film’s premiere, the article reported:

“… the so-called day-and-date release with an assist from the festival here suits his needs from a financial and artistic perspective.”

This wording, too, is needlessly complicated, given it simply means to say the release “suits his financial and artistic needs.” Often a ‘perspective’ is suggested where there is none.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Another term that has become a buzzword because of unjustified use is ‘blockbuster,’ when referring to a movie (as opposed to the older, more literal meaning of an enormous bomb that can destroy a block of buildings).

A movie becomes a blockbuster when it is hugely popular and, therefore, profitable. With increasing regularity, however, many media sources refer to movies as ‘blockbusters’ when they haven’t even opened yet!

On March 12, 2009, for example, the website IGN previewed upcoming movies with a piece titled ‘Hot New Blockbuster Trailers,’ while the Press Association reported on actor Mickey Rourke’s involvement in Iron Man 2—which is planned for release in mid-2010—by saying he has been “linked to the blockbuster for some time.”

When movies yet to be released are referred to as blockbusters, the term loses all meaning, as it no longer measures any particular quality or quantity. It is a case of optimistic but utterly empty hype—Hollywood studios understandably want every movie they release to become a blockbuster, but until they find a surefire formula for success, that isn’t going to happen.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Some words lose their force of meaning through overuse in circumstances that do not necessarily warrant them. Such is the case with ‘controversial,’ which news reporters increasingly deploy without any justification.

To be controversial is not a particularly extreme state; it merely entails the causing of debate or dispute surrounding a subject. Yet, many reporters are quick to label events, decisions and people as controversial without bothering to explain why.

On March 10, 2009, for example, Calgary radio station AM 770 reported the following story:

Sustainable Calgary is hailing the city’s controversial new Plan It Calgary report. It proposes big changes to city residential development to accommodate another 1.3 million people in the next 60 years. Executive Director Noel Keough says the report is a great start to what should be smarter development in Calgary. He says for years, thousands of citizens have been calling for a stricter, higher-density policy to reduce urban sprawl. As a result, he says Council needs to listen to research and feedback that all point towards transit-oriented development, instead of developers who point towards market demand. However, Keough calls the plan “a bare minimum.”

Despite the claim of controversy, there seems to be no debate whatsoever; the city council, the non-profit organization (Sustainable Calgary) and even thousands of citizens all appear to be in agreement. There is a hint that developers may have other priorities, but no suggestion that this has led to any dispute.

Other instances miss the word’s meaning altogether. On the same day, the Vancouver Sun carried a story with the headline, “North Vancouver school at heart of a controversial debate.” One would certainly hope that a debate involved controversy—or it wouldn’t be a debate at all.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

end user

When computing became ubiquitous, the term ‘user’ quickly came to define, well, practically all of us. That is to say, we were the users of computers. We encountered graphical user interfaces (GUIs). We set up user accounts. We chose usernames.

Somewhere along the line, however, a redundant appendage was added to this term. We became ‘end users.’

In a rather vague matter of semantics, an end user is the intended recipient of any particular technology. This may be construed as a somewhat abstract concept, as it could theoretically describe someone who doesn’t even exist; but then, so could ‘user’ in the same context.

The beauty of simple terms is the way they fit a broad array of circumstances. Buzzwords are often needlessly, superficially specific, as though the likes of ‘end user’ could inherently connote anything more than the sum of its parts.

It can’t. When average civilians become users of any given technology, they are already at the end of its path of development from idea to market. And there is little sense in defining an ‘end user’ when there is no corresponding role for a ‘beginning user.’

Sunday, March 1, 2009


It’s rare to see a buzzword take on both positive and negative connotations within a short period of use, but such has been the confusing case with ‘ninja’ in recent years.

In its original sense, a ninja was an assassin or spy who used stealth and camouflage in feudal Japan. Centuries later, however, the popularity of fanciful martial arts tales elevated the ninja archetype to international renown. In modern times, some military and rebel forces in violent regions around the world—including Croatia, the Republic of the Congo, Indonesia and Angola—have referred to themselves as ninja.

Far less menacingly, the term has also been adopted in civilian life to represent the aspirations of software programmers (code ninjas) and online video gamers (loot ninjas), among others. In these cases, ‘ninja’ is speciously used to convey stealth as an advantage in the realm of information technology (IT).

Another more pessmistic meaning has arisen from the current economic downturn, the acronym ‘No Income, No Job or Assets’ (NINJA). HCL Finance, for example, offered Ninja loans during the U.S. housing ‘bubble’ that eventually led to that country’s subprime mortgage crisis. More recently, the Philippines’ presidential advisor Joey Salceda has described a new financial stimulus program as the Ninja Plan, with the goal of helping unemployed workers find new jobs.

While catchy, none of the original meaning of ‘ninja’ is retained in these positive and negative connotations. Hopefully, they will soon cancel each other out.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

time bomb

While many clichés overtake terms’ original meanings in the public consciousness, it can be reassuring to see those basic definitions show up again, as they help show how misguided buzzwords can be.

On February 24, 2009, the Associated Press (AP) reported that a recent explosion in Cairo, Egypt, had involved a time bomb:

The crude bomb that killed a French teenager and injured 24 others at a famous Cairo bazaar was made of gunpowder and detonated by a washing machine timer, according to a crime lab report.

One day later, however, the same news agency used the term ‘time bomb’ in a more abstract and sensationalistic context when reporting on another recent attack—one involving no actual bomb at all, but rather a chimpanzee that had seriously injured a woman in the U.S. the previous week:

The founder of a primate rescue sanctuary says she warned a Connecticut woman years ago that her chimpanzee was a “ticking time bomb.”

To be fair, in the second instance AP was quoting April Truitt, who runs a primate rescue centre, rather than choosing to use the term itself. Nevertheless, by citing the quote in an article’s headline (Sanctuary had warned that chimp was ‘ticking time bomb’) and never challenging it, the news agency perpetuated the misuse of the term.

A time bomb is designed to detonate at a specific moment. Yet, when the term is used metaphorically to describe situations, animals or people (and it seems everything is fair game, from sick workforces to school violence, from a prisoner release to hiring illegal aliens), it invariably ignores that detail of the definition.

That is to say, while the chimpanzee may have already posed a grave danger, its attack was certainly not pre-set to take place on February 16, 2009.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Some buzzwords catch on because they deliberately vague and therefore can be used without any consequence. It’s the art of saying something and saying nothing at the same time.

One such term that seems increasingly frequent wherever empty promises are being made is “robust.” It is a non-specific word by definition. If a person is robust, for example, he/she is generally strong, healthy and full of vigour, but not in any measurable sense.

On Friday, February 13, 2009, Canwest News Service reported an anecdote in Canada-U.S. relations that showed how easy it is to use the impressive-sounding “robust” to sidestep skepticism. Specifically, the story told how Robert Gibbs, the White House’s press secretary:

… was put in the position of trying to talk up the importance of Obama’s visit to Ottawa after an American reporter suggested that first meetings between the leaders of Canada and the U.S. have “traditionally been little more than a celebration of continental solidarity.”

Gibbs insisted Harper and Obama would have a “robust” agenda.

“I think international security will come up. I think you’ll hear a discussion on energy, as the president talked about when meeting with regional reporters earlier in the week. I think the agenda, which we’ll have more on, will be robust and include any number of topics, ranging from economic security to international security.”

Not only does “robust” not mean “multifaceted,” but it is also used here without having to back it up with any firm commitments.

Whether or not the U.S. president discusses the listed topics with Stephen Harper during their upcoming visit, Gibbs’ earlier response to the reporter will handily avoid scrutiny. Indeed, no matter what transpires between the leaders, White House staff can afterwards claim it was “robust”—because no one else can prove it wasn’t.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Some buzzwords are simply cases of exaggeration. ‘Gridlock,’ for example, is being widely used today to describe situation that aren’t really up to snuff.

Strictly speaking, gridlock is a scenario involving a grid-based transportation network—e.g. a system of roads—whereby blocked intersections prevent vehicles from moving. It thus describes a locked grid where movement becomes nearly impossible.

This specific meaning is being watered down, however, by increasingly frequent uses of the term to describe heavy traffic in general.

While covering on a recent transit strike in Ottawa, The Globe And Mail reported:

“Frustrated commuters, who've hitch-hiked, walked through repeated blizzards or been stuck in traffic gridlock, have been hoping for weeks for an end to the dispute.”

A lack of bus service, however, does not cause gridlock, as this article seems to suggest. Rather, bad drivers who enter intersections before they have space to exit them are the cause of gridlock, when it occurs. And generally, true gridlock is mitigated in Canadian cities by the enforcement of laws against such behaviour.

In downtown Toronto, for instance, many intersections are painted with large ‘X’ patterns to dissuade drivers from idling in them. It’s not a perfect remedy for gridlock, but it certainly helps prevent it even when traffic in general becomes heavier.

It’s really a question of context. A recent letter to The Toronto Star referred to a public transportation meeting and suggested:

“Faster, cleaner, more convenient service extending throughout the Greater Toronto Area will reduce the appalling bumper-to-bumper rush hour gridlock and cut air pollution dramatically.”

Not only does the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) generally avoid actual gridlock, but it also would not necessarily see any existing gridlock—or other traffic problems, really—reduced by improved transit service. Indeed, many cities around the world with the strongest provision of rapid transit service also suffer some of the worst road traffic. One does not prevent the other.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Two major news providers, Thomson and Reuters, merged in 2008 to create a dual-listed company that offers financial market data, health-care information, legal research, tax and accounting updates, scientific information and general-interest news. Thomson Reuters summarizes all of these services as “intelligent information for businesses and professionals.”

One should certainly hope all information is inherently “intelligent.” After all, intelligence entails the collection of information in a general sense to create intellect, reasoning, wisdom and understanding. It does not discriminate between different types of information.

Yet, “intelligent” is often trotted out as a buzzword these days, as though to suggest greater abilities for whatever it describes.

In the information technology (IT) field, for example, Apple filed a patent application in 2007 for what it calls “intelligent universal rechargeable batteries for battery charging system for mobile and accessory devices.” The batteries don’t contain any information; they can just be swapped more easily than previous models.

In the security field, companies like Genex Technologies sell “intelligent surveillance” products and services—the idea being that the effectiveness of video cameras can be improved by using software to control them and to detect certain types of activity. While this may help human staff decide where to focus attention, however, it is no more intelligent than, say, word processing software.

‘Intelligent’ refers simply to information, but in a so-called information age, it may well become a redundant adjective—or perhaps it is time to become much, much pickier when judging what or who is truly intelligent.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


There are many cases where buzzwords play even more haphazardly with grammar than with meaning. Nouns and adjectives are often twisted into verbs (e.g. “to architect” and “to green”).

One such case that has been receiving plenty of media attention in Canada lately is “pansification,” a noun based on a verb improperly based on another noun. It had become popular with commentators on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, a weekly broadcast of National Hockey League (NHL) games.

As The Globe And Mail reported on January 31, 2009, “the network came under fire from the Ottawa-based gay advocacy group Egale Canada. It protested the term, which was used by Hockey Night personalities to describe how the NHL game would be softened by changes designed to prohibit fighting.”

In other words, the derogatory slang definition of “pansy” had led to “pansify” and, finally, “pansification.” Its use on CBC was understandably perceived by some viewers as a slur against homosexuals, just as “pansy” had in general slang in previous decades.

Reportedly invented by Mike Nilbury, one of Hockey Night’s commentators, “pansification” could easily have been substituted with “softening,” as suggested by the Globe’s explanation, which would have prevented offence both socially and grammatically. If CBC’s self-imposed ban is effective, though, the term could be mercifully short-lived, the rare instance of a dressed-up buzzword being quickly and efficiently dressed down.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Generation X

In 1965, the interview-based book Generation X by Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett profiled U.K. teenagers of its time, who had been born soon after the so-called ‘baby boom’ that followed the Second World War. The book was sufficiently influential that singer Billy Idol named a punk rock band after it in 1976.

In 1991, however, Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s fictional book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture featured characters who, like Coupland himself, were born in the 1960s, a decade later than Deverson and Hamblett's subjects. This book popularized the term ‘Generation X’—among others, like ‘McJob’—for North American readers.

As though these two books weren’t already incongruous in their definitions of a demographic group, subsequent references to Generation X moved it forward farther still.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, for example, cites everyone born “roughly from the early 60s to mid-70s,” even though the latter would not have been adults stuck in dead-end McJobs by the late 1980s, as in Coupland’s novel. CBC’s definition, meanwhile, encompassed “the early 1960s to late 1970s.”

As the term kept being extended, it lost all meaning. It could have been adopted as an intentionally vague reference to the unknown, rather like ‘x-factor,’ but instead it has continued constantly to denote specific age ranges.

On February 4, 2009, for example, an article in The Desert Sun referred to pastors “focusing their efforts on Generation X,” but turned out to be about “junior and senior high school students ages 13 to 18” … that is, born approximately 40 years later than Deverson and Hamblett’s Generation X!

Monday, February 2, 2009

perfect storm

Like ‘brave new world’ before it, the phrase ‘perfect storm’ became popular after it was the title of a book. Specifically, The Perfect Storm was a 1997 non-fiction bestseller by Sebastian Junger about the effects of a severe storm at sea in 1991. The title referred to the collective impact of numerous concurrent weather events—an impact that could be considered greater than the sum of its parts.

Three years later came an expensive and popular movie adaptation, ensuring the titular phrase’s place in pop culture. It soon became a cliché, however, as it was overused to describe any manner of situations where a variety of painful factors might coincide.

These days, for example, a perfect storm can apparently entail anything from a period of transition between Microsoft operating systems (OSs), according to ZDNet; through economic uncertainty for non-profit organizations, according to The Toronto Star; to—more literally, perhaps, but no more threatening—a forecast of colder-than-usual temperatures and two feet of snow in Morris County, N.J., according to the Daily Record.

The 1991 Nor’Easter that Junger wrote about was not unique in its strength, but it was most certainly of a noteworthy magnitude. By contrast, these ‘perfect storms’ that show up every day in newspapers are just that: everyday events, no more rare or noteworthy than any imperfect storm.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Another catch-all term that appears frequently in information technology (IT) articles and press releases is ‘enterprise.’ It’s used in the sense that considers a business as a collective organization, but it also conveniently hints at its other meanings, suggesting the readiness to undertake any bold, challenging activity.

That might be fine, harmless optimism as far as it goes, but now this buzzword often appears to be used as though it were inherently a measure of quality. For example, in eWeek, Andrew Garcia writes about “Enterprise-Grade Wireless LAN” technology, which suggests it performs at a certain level.

Meanwhile, a headline in PC World claims ‘Netbooks Aren’t Enterprise-Worthy,’ yet the first paragraph of the corresponding story argues, “they might be okay for small businesses.” The implication, then, is that large businesses are enterprises, but small ones are not. This is nonsense.

In the truest spirit of the word, an enterprise may well only consist of a handful of people working toward a common business goal. And their needs may be paltry compared to the promised benefits—and high prices—of so-called enterprise-grade products and services.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Information technology (IT) has become fertile ground for buzzwords, particularly as new terms are needed to describe various aspects of computing. Perhaps due to the sheer speed of this trend, there are often linguistic inconsistencies within this one sector.

Almost everyone is aware, for example, of the dangers posed by computer viruses, whereby hidden programming code can corrupt systems or erase important data. Yet, just as computer users take preventive measures against viruses, many of them also revel today in so-called viral content.

For as an adjective, ‘viral’ has come to describe not the traits of computer viruses that are unknowingly spread from system to system, but instead any content that catches on within social networks and is quite happily shared among computer users.

The aim of viral marketing, for example, is to increase awareness of a corporate brand by providing content that captures the attention of users who will then choose to let other users know about it.

Viral videos can originate with no predetermined plan at all to perpetuate them, yet quickly become popular as they are shared via the Internet.  Users wanting to be entertained will actively seek out these clips.

Indeed, such content is not treated like computer viruses at all. It may be time for the users to remember than when something is truly ‘viral,’ it’s a threat, not a treat.

Monday, January 26, 2009


The entertainment industry often establishes and perpetuates buzzwords by using them in titles of movies, TV shows, songs and video games. They may sound catchy, but are rarely used correctly.

For example, a 1999 personal computer (PC) game, Requiem: Avenging Angel, allowed players to join a futuristic holy battle between Heaven and Hell as the angel Malachi. At no point, however, did the game resemble the meaning of ‘requiem,’ i.e. a service, musical piece or book memorializing the dead.

Lately, this misuse seems to have caught on. In December 2007, the violent science-fiction thriller Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem opened in movie theatres, depicting a variety of nasty creatures killing the residents of a small town in Colorado, but notably never pausing to commemorate their victims.

In February 2009, an episode of the superhero TV series Smallville, titled ‘Requiem,’ will pit several protagonists against a bomber whose explosion kills a corporation’s board members. It’s probably fair to predict this story, too, will spend more time on pursuit and battle than on memorials for one-off bit characters.

While ‘requiem’ is certainly not a buzzword in common parlance, Hollywood seems attracted to its air of gravitas and poignancy, as though it could class up any old caper. It really can’t.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Not all buzzwords represent misuse of the language. Some instead represent correct but needlessly showy overuse.

One example that seems to bother many writers and editors is the verb ‘to leverage.’ Its use has become common so quickly, it runs the risk of frequently being written and spoken by those who do not know what it means.

While this differs from blatant misuse, it’s not much more legitimate. The catchy nature of ‘leverage’ is moving it—much like ‘hybrid’—from specific to general connotations. While the verb’s meaning entails bringing any object into a position of advantage (analogous to the use of an actual lever), in North America it has tended in the past to serve primarily as a business terma, referring to financial speculation about the profit potential of borrowed capital.

Its use in other contexts can become simply ludicrous. Nelson Lin, president and CEO of Robocoder, a software developer in Richmond, B.C., promises his company’s technology will “allow companies the opportunity to leverage its perfected source code to maintain their mission critical enterprise software applications.” An upcoming American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) online seminar is titled ‘Leveraging Green to Become Stronger and More Cost-Efficient.’ And Education Week suggests one way to improve children’s education is to “leverage parents.

While none of these uses is wrong per se, all are examples of a buzzword being used for its fancy sound, rather than its basic meaning.

Friday, January 23, 2009

in actual fact

Much like the previously discussed case of ‘literally,’ many buzzwords are deployed to provide force of emphasis, exaggeration or intensification. People use these blunt instruments to sound more serious about their topic of conversation.

The urge can drive them to speak redundantly, as though thinly disguised repetition could make their point stronger. One common example is the phrase ‘in actual fact.’

Spoken far more frequently than it is written (at least on this side of the Atlantic Ocean), it’s a needlessly wordy way of saying ‘actually’ or ‘in fact,’ either of which would be fine on its own. Yet, it seems to slip past many nitpickers’ radar because it somehow sounds more scholarly than slangy.

On January 23, 2009, a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee—of all people—was quoted in The Financial Post as saying, presumably with no sense of irony, “The motion is in actual fact kind of redundant.”

The scholarly tinge the phrase carries in countries like Canada may be the fault of their colonial past. The BBC World Service, after all, recommends the phrase in its Learning English program:

 … we can … use in actual fact or as a matter of fact to clarify matters or to introduce new information.

Just because “we can,” however, doesn’t mean “we should.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


It’s amazing how quickly new terminology can be adopted as buzzwords. Consider ‘mashup,’ a young word made popular through digital media, music, videos and web applications.

A mashup is a derived work comprising components from other existing works. Many clips on YouTube, for example, are user-generated files that combine video and audio from a variety of sources, re-edited to create new pieces.

As mashups have become easier for anyone with a computer to compose, the term has begun to creep into other sectors. The Hartford Courant included fashion designer Marc Jacobs in its 2008 Image Index because “his multi-culti mash-up collections for Spring '09 were among the season's best.” Los Angeles Times movie reviewer Robert Abele suggests the new film Chandni Chowk to China can “only be termed genre-mashup overkill.” And in June 2009, the Youth Marketing Mashup—really just a conference—will take place in San Francisco, Calif.

Such uses threaten to chip away at the term’s original meaning until it is no more. Jacobs’ fashions might be mashups if he used materials from previously existing clothing, but he doesn’t. Chandni Chowk certainly wasn’t edited from other movies’ footage. Notably, it features the first action movie sequences ever filmed on the Great Wall of China; how can something without precedent be a mashup? And calling a conference a mashup just smacks of desperation to sound young.

A new word deserves better—it deserves a chance to be understood for its own merits before it is co-opted for other purposes. At the very least, wait until it’s in a few more dictionaries first.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Can a number become a buzzword? One that seems to have done so is pronounced “two point oh.

Born from the terminology used to refer to subsequent iterations of computer software, ‘2.0’ made its way toward the mainstream lexicon in 2004, when information technology (IT) developers gathered for the first Web 2.0 Expo. The name of this event, its organizers suggested, reflected a trend whereby the World Wide Web was becoming a computing platform unto itself.

Today, just as the web has come to affect a broader swath of the population, so too has ‘2.0.’ With wider acceptance, however, it has lost what little meaning and context it might previously have earned.

Some uses relate back to Web 2.0, such as ‘Government 2.0’ when referring to the public sector’s adoption of web-based service delivery. Many recent instances have not, including corporate calls for ‘Bailout 2.0’ and the following offender, which appeared in a piece by Tyler Hamilton in The Toronto Star on January 16, 2009:

… a new generation of energy-efficient vehicles, or what some are calling ‘Car 2.0.’

The fact that ‘some’ may be using the term ‘Car 2.o’ is certainly no reason for newspapers to perpetuate it. And it is particularly ironic that the vehicles Hamilton writes about, electric cars, should if anything be called ‘Car 1.0,’ given that the original electric cars predate both gasoline and diesel automobiles.

Indeed, the quiet and smoke-free electric car was reportedly popular with none other than Henry Ford’s wife, Clara Jane Bryant, who no doubt would be amused to hear it now referred to as something new, innovative and so very 2.0.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Some buzzwords spread because they seem more intelligent and complicated than their simpler alternatives. Such is the case with ‘utilize,’ a verb which in every instance can be substituted with the much more elegant ‘use.’

For example, on January 17, 2009, The Globe And Mail reported plans in Washington, D.C., to redesign the East Wing of the White House for the incoming U.S. president, Barack Obama. It quoted designer Michael Smith, who in a released statement cited the Obama family’s interest in “utilizing affordable brands and products.”

There is certainly some irony in a high-profile interior designer—whose past clients include celebrities Steven Spielberg, Cindy Crawford and Dustin Hoffman—trying to convey affordable simplicity with the needlessly technical ‘utilizing.’

Most writers are taught early on to keep language simple and straightforward. When they write fictional dialogue, for example, they are encouraged to attribute it to their characters with a simple ‘said,’ rather than the likes of ‘exclaimed,’ ‘declared’ or other overwrought synonyms.

Similarly, the beautifully brief ‘use’ can be relied upon universally, without needing to resort to more colourful variations. Also, as a noun, it can handily replace ‘usage’ and ‘utilization.’

While repetition itself can be a plague on language, this unassuming three-letter wonder is simply not fancy enough for readers (or listeners, when spoken) to tire of it. Indeed, they’ll hardly notice it—which is a good thing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


It’s hopefully not too prudish to suggest that randy euphemisms can really ruin words for everyday use. A common example is the adjectival form of ‘adult,’ which dictionaries define in relatively tame terms like ‘grown-up,’ ‘mature’ and  ‘for or of adults’—while also citing the euphemistic meaning, ‘sexually explicit.’

There was a time when one could refer to books, movies and situations as adult without warranting a nudge or a wink. Those days may be gone. A few exceptions remain, like ‘adult contemporary’ radio stations, which specialize in easy listening music that is very tame indeed—but for the most part, the word has needlessly been burdened with bawdiness.

It may not help matters that ‘adult’ has always been linguistically tied to ‘adultery,’ which by definition denotes a sexually explicit act. Yet that aside, the current trend of referring to the risqué as ‘adult’ smacks of euphemistic opportunism, a gradual neutering of ideas and contexts that, while not inherently wicked, tend to strike the fainthearted as distasteful.

Euphemisms are among the worst kinds of buzzwords. They can’t be justified on the basis of ignorance or innocence; everyone knows what they've come to mean, yet they’re used anyway to pussyfoot around the rougher edges of language.

Rougher edges help make languages colourful, not just dull and practical. As the cliché goes, “Call a spade a spade.” Blunt and specific should win out over gentle and vague.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

is (pl.)

English is one of those languages that distinguish between singular and plural verb tenses—but lately, this distinction has sometimes been missed.

On January 10, 2009, The Toronto Star ran an article by its Asia bureau chief, Bill Schiller, about Charter 08, an admirable “grassroots petition for human rights” in China. At one point, while describing the current state of that country, he writes, “the glow and glue of the Olympics is gone.”

Now, no matter how closely stuck together glow and glue might be, they will always be, well, ‘they,’ not ‘it.’ As such, the corresponding verb should be pluralized: ‘are,’ not ‘is.’

The same article is guilty of another poorly conjugated construction elsewhere. A professor in New York, Thomas Kellogg, is quoted as saying, “The charter’s depth, breadth, eloquence and sophistication indicates a significant step forward.”

Clearly, the verb should be conjugated in the plural tense, as ‘indicate,’ given that it refers to multiple facets of the charter.

There may be a pesky trend at work whereby various elements in a sentence are treated as a singular noun, even when explicitly presented as a list. Schiller’s article brings to mind a scene in the 1999 blockbuster, The Matrix, when a threatening Sentinel robot is described as, “a killing machine designed for one thing … search and destroy.” Uh, those would be two things ….

Monday, January 12, 2009

brave new world

Playwright William Shakespeare coined the phrase ‘brave new world’ in The Tempest, wherein the sheltered and naïve Miranda declares:

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in’t!

Later, it was used ironically by Rudyard Kipling in the poem The Gods of the Copybook Headings:

… after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins

When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins …

Most famously, the phrase was again used ironically as the title of a 1932 dystopic novel by Aldous Huxley. The book depicted a nightmarish future society of strictly enforced castes, indoctrination by hypnotic slogans, conspicuous consumption and a lack of acceptance of individualism.

Huxley’s satirical connotation became the dictionary definition. How disturbing, then, to see these three words show up today with no sense of irony whatsoever.

RISMedia’s Real Estate Magazine shares wisdom and advice for real estate firms “Entering a Brave New World.” The online newsletter Dexigner espouses “The Brave New World of ‘Effect Design.’” And The Toronto Star’s theatre critic, Richard Ouzounian, praises with Miranda-like wonder “a series of unique partnerships that are paving the way for a brave new world of multimedia production.”

These writers and publications seem utterly unaware of the phrase’s well-established baggage. Fortunately, others at least acknowledge Huxley’s bleak sense of foreboding.

The Independent’s Dom Joly references “Huxley’s brave new world of robotic surveillance” (though his Huxley is a pet dog and the robotic surveillance involves a collar camera). The Chicago Tribune worries that “the brave new world of street parking ... limited only by the imagination—and thirst for profits—of the free-enterprise system that increasingly is taking over functions performed exclusively until now by the government.” And perhaps most fittingly, the New Haven Register suggests, “Be cautious about genetics’ brave new world.”

These voices, however, are now a minority. Most times the phrase ‘brave new world’ is trotted out, it’s in an attempt to sell a sense of optimism—an attempt that is blissfully ignorant of the phrase’s reference to supposed happiness.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Ever since the information technology (IT) industry adopted the word ‘architecture’—previously associated primarily with the design and construction of buildings—and used it to denote conceptual structures of computing systems’ various processing elements, the word seems to have become fair game for all other sectors of society.

An article in the Harvard International Review calls upon the future U.S. president, Barack Obama, to “organize an effective National Security Architecture.” In India, The Economic Times reports that the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is working with other countries “to create a new financial architecture that will prevent future shocks to the global economy.” And the Air Force Times reports on something called a “nuclear inspection architecture.”

These are specious riffs on the broader definition of ‘architecture’ as any sort of design or structure, but even worse is a newer trend—primarily in the IT sector—to use ‘architect’ as a verb.

A recent IT job posting in British Columbia (no longer up) sought candidates with “the ability to architect and deploy solutions.” Mercury Computer Solutions promises to “work closely with customers to architect comprehensive, purpose-built solutions.” And InfoQueue recently reported on “Architecting for Green Computing.”

Such use is particularly obnoxious given that, in every case, a simple ‘design’ or ‘build’ would do the trick without any loss of context or meaning.

Friday, January 9, 2009


Sometimes a term becomes a buzzword by taking on the meaning of another word with which it is often associated. This may be what happened with ‘critical,’ which seems to be used frequently to suggest a thing is ‘critically important.’

When something (rather than someone) is critical, it is at a decisive or crucial point, possibly one of crisis. For example, on January 5, 2009, Reuters ran the headline, “Russia gas supplies to Bulgaria at critical level.”

In many cases, however, things are said today to be critical that are not. For example, an innovations report calls “risk management critical to corporate strategy.” What it means to suggest is that risk management is critically important; it is not implying a subject only now at a point of crisis. While perhaps timely in some senses, the report is giving general advice, not merely an of-the-moment status update.

The government of Canada (along with other governments around the world) often refers to various assets, from hospitals to power lines, as “critical infrastructure.” What it means by this is infrastructure that is critically important; i.e. essential at times of crisis. It does not mean that such infrastructure is constantly on the brink of collapsing.

Indeed, it is highly ironic to see a term with negative connotations related to crises used to describe the very foundations of modern society. If transportation networks, water pipes and telecommunications lines were literally “critical infrastructure,” no one would feel sufficiently confident to use them at any time!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


In uncertain times, everyone seems to want a “roadmap to success.”

Possibly the most famous (and still newsworthy, for unfortunate reasons) is the Roadmap for Peace. Developed by the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States, it was presented in 2003 to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an effort to lead toward “a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

The term has really caught on since then as an optimistic buzzword. The Salvation Army is backing a “sustainable clothing roadmap” to boost the recycling and reuse of garments. An aide to Pope Benedict XVI reports the pontiff has a “roadmap for hope.” The South China Morning Post suggests Hong Kong “needs to work out a viable road map to achieve full democracy.”

These are plans, however, not maps at all. This is where the metaphor breaks down.

A map is a representation of the arrangement of geographical features or other attributes of the physical environment. It offers expansive and detailed information to assist its users in making decisions, but it does not make decisions for them.

A plan, on the other hand, gives specific directions for going from A to B. It is not like a true road map at all, but akin to a party host telling his friends how to get to his home. Such directions may certainly complement the use of a road map, but they are not the map itself.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Scientific terms may risk turning into the kinds of buzzwords that lose the most context and meaning, as they move from highly specialized use into the mainstream and are subsequently misconstrued. One example is the current trend to use ‘DNA’ metaphorically in reference to companies and organizations, rather than living organisms, which are the only subjects to which it applies literally.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), as most laymen are likely aware, carries an organism’s genetic instructions, offering a sort of blueprint for building other components of that organism’s cells. As such, it can be said to define much of what is predetermined about organisms. It is not something that can be altered.

Yet, as a buzzword, ‘DNA’ is often used instead to describe attributes of companies and organizations that have intentionally been put in place, arranged by human hand, rather than predestined. This misuse can reach absurd lengths—in November 2008, The Economist featured an interview with an MTV executive (noticeably a puff piece by that publication’s standards) that opened with the following bit of unintentional irony:

Judy McGrath believes that “change has to be in everyone’s DNA, personally and professionally.”

Unfortunately for McGrath and other wishful thinkers, change is one trait to which DNA does not particularly lend itself—and even if it somehow were, ensuring its presence is a highly fanciful notion given that no organism has any choice in the matter.

Monday, January 5, 2009


One of the most oddly used buzzwords at the moment is ‘franchise,’ which has somehow slipped into descriptions of pop culture.

Dictionaries already cover a variety of definitions for the word, from a franchise business (i.e. a store, restaurant or other entity authorized to sell a franchisor’s services and/or products) to the right to vote in elections, from a league-authorized sports team to a legal exemption or immunity.

To these established meanings has been added the conceit of describing pretty much any major pop-culture property—e.g. Harry Potter, Batman or James Bond—as a media franchise. The reason this context seems ill-fitting, however, is that these entities, while perhaps more nebulous than tangible, are in themselves closer to goods and services—so-called ‘intellectual property’—than they are to an act of authorization or those who might benefit from such an act.

A city’s sports team can benefit from being part of a high-profile major league, much as a corner coffee shop can benefit from being part of a popular national chain. A ‘media franchise’ like Indiana Jones, however, is not the local beneficiary of being associated with a larger brand—it is the larger brand. It is what is being sold to consumers. It’s the coffee or the football game, it’s not the barista or the quarterback.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Colours seem to lend themselves to metaphor-based meanings. A sad person is blue, while an angry one sees red. Such turns of phrase handily avoid unintentional ambiguity—they’re poetic because they generally describe things that aren’t actually those colours.

Today, however, clarity of meaning is increasingly threatened by the widespread adoption of a colourful buzzword with the best of intentions but little quality control: ‘green.’

As perhaps the most mainstream manifestation of the environmental protection movement, ‘green’ is being applied to all sorts of things, from office buildings to dietary habits. The more frequently it is simply attached to any given noun, however, the higher the risk for clumsy ambiguity.

For instance, a greenhouse is commonly known to be a transparent building wherein plants are grown—but as today’s homeowners seek to reduce their energy bills through efficiency-minded renovations, they follow the model of so-called ‘green houses,’ i.e. recent examples of environmentally friendlier architecture. Thus, these are houses predominantly for people, not plants.

Another linguistic paradox can be found in ‘green revolution,’ a term that’s been around long enough to be defined by dictionaries as both (a) the growth of environmental concerns, generally in industrialized countries, and (b) the trend toward higher-yield crop production, particularly in developing countries, by using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that are certainly not environmentally friendly.

Such contradictions will likely be worked out over time, but not without some reduction of the current mania for green hype (hopefully without reducing anyone’s actual commitment to the cause of environmental protection, which deserves to be far more than a fad).

In the meantime, we’re stuck with the likes of CBC’s current project One Million Acts of Green, which manages to mistreat an adjective as a noun. Consider how clearly obnoxious is the grammar of, say, ‘One Million Acts of Happy’—yet such misuse of ‘green’ seems to be given, by much of society, a green light.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Buzzwords become all the more annoying when no one else seems to acknowledge them as such. Indeed, a widespread willingness not to question a buzzword may only help it flourish. So, it is all the more thrilling when a long-running cliché is rebuked somewhere other than, say, a grumpy editor’s blog.

The Torontoist is a blog, but a relatively mainstream one that does not usually concern itself with the ebbs and flows of contemporary linguistics, focusing rather on Toronto-related news, events, culture, politics, public space and other areas of coverage that actually affect a lot of people. It was therefore surprising (and gratifying) when one of its recently nominated ‘Villains of 2008’ was not an ornery politician or other distasteful public figure, but rather a single word, “killing.”

Specifically, on December 26, 2008, the Torontoist took local media to task for using sensationalistic headlines featuring “killing” and similar terms when clearly unwarranted:

What's been up with the front page headlines on this city's weekly alternative papers this year? It seemed like it was impossible to pass a green or yellow newspaper box without being told about "THE END" of this, "THE DEATH" of that, or, most annoyingly, asked, "Is so-and-so KILLING such-and such?" "Are bars killing West Queen West?" "Is Rock Band killing music?" "Is digital killing the art of photography?" "Is Girl Talk killing music?" The answer to all of these questions is a simple "no" …

… we understand that news media is all about finding the story and making dull facts interesting, and many of the articles that accompany these headlines are well-written and thought-provoking. But this kind of front-page sensationalism makes the publication seem less like the hip and savvy alternative to the mainstream media and more like a scandal-hungry supermarket tabloid.

The simple verb “to kill” has long spawned far too many metaphorical meanings to count, a large handful of which will show up among dictionary definitions, but it’s refreshing when someone pauses once in a while to acknowledge the context of some of these meanings as overheated sensationalismrather than the typical responses of eyes glazing over or, even worse, taking hype at its word.

Unfortunately, media of all types are desperate today to catch readers' attention and there are likely to be a lot more ‘killer’ headlines in the near future, not less. Hopefully, the Torontoist’s cheeky accusation of villainy in such will help some readers think twice.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Those of us who receive press releases from a wide variety of sources may be forgiven for assuming that all companies and organizations are now in the same line of work, as they uniformly seem to be offering something called ‘solutions.’

One of the most insidious buzzwords today, ‘solutions’ has come to entail any mix of products and/or services. Some companies promise a combination of both; others offer only one or the other. They’re all missing the point, though.

Generally, a solution isn’t anything tangible (though a notable exception will be discussed in a moment), but rather the means, act or value of solving a problem. An obvious example is a math solution, but in the broader sense, any answer, decision or explanation is a solution, as it addresses a difficulty.

Amazingly, however, this dictionary definition doesn’t seem to be broad enough for today’s tastes. Instead, we hear about storage solutions, IT solutions, energy solutions, banking solutions, etc., etc. The word is used to describe so many products and services, it ends up as a meaningless catch-all.

The only legitimate type of solution that is truly tangible is a mixture—whether liquid, semi-liquid or even solid—produced through the use of a solvent. We all learned about these solutions in chemistry class.  Is it possible that marketing departments perceive the combination of their goods and services as somehow akin to chemical solutions? It’s a big stretch, but even then, it wouldn’t explain all of the similarly branded one-offs, from closet organizers to software.

If instead companies are trying to suggest they can solve problems, it’s interesting to note they do not mention what these problems are—or even acknowledge that they exist. ‘Solutions’ are instead offered in a blissfully optimistic voice that never deigns to suggest anything could be wrong or might need to be fixed. The inference is everything, allowing the world ‘solutions’ to serve as a reassuring platitude, nothing more.

It cannot be reassuring, however, for consumers to find themselves faced with countless companies seemingly all offering the same thing. In an age of information overload, it would make far better business sense for them to stand out of the crowd by *gasp* being specific about what they offer.