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.