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.