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.

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