Where Annoying Tech Buzzwords Come From

What do you do when you want to emphasize the cool newness of something that’s not really new? Make a buzzword!

January 11, 2008
By

Mike Elgan

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Silicon Valley is a marvelous engine of innovation -- both technical and linguistic. And to use an annoying Silicon Valley buzzword, language invention is the “low-hanging fruit” of the innovation process for any Bay Area startup.

It all starts with a desire to emphasize the totally new nature of something that really isn't all that new.

The impulse to coin buzzwords infects ideas and concepts that have nothing to do with actual innovation. And even that would be harmless enough, but the words leak out of the valley and trickle down into the general culture.

Startups invent these words to impress venture capitalists. The technology press (guilty as charged!) picks up on and starts using them because we, too, want to sound forward-thinking.

Then politicians and businesspeople pick up on them from tech and business press reports precisely because of their association with technology, newness and innovation. You’ll even hear some of these contrivances uttered by candidates running for president.

This semiconscious “upgrading” of the language happens on many fronts. For example, you'll never hear the phrase “in the future” in business anymore. It has long been replaced by “going forward.”

The phrase “in the future” is neutral and says nothing about the speaker. But “going forward” implies progress and constant improvement.

If some marketing person says, “Our company plans to consider additional acquisitions going forward,” he is implying that the company may be in a constant state of considering additional acquisitions as it continues to evolve toward bigger and better things.

That sounds way better than the truth, which tends to be “We have no idea what we're going to do.”

Another annoying Silicon Valley contrivance is “learnings,” which replaces “knowledge.” It implies that information exists in encapsulated nuggets of data that can be “captured” (another annoying Silicon Valley usage) and shared digitally. “Learnings” is “knowledge,” made to sound like a new kind.

In reality, there is no new kind of knowledge, only new ways to sell knowledge. The good news about “learnings” is that it has been dealt a possibly fatal blow by the 2006 movie, “Borat,” which had the wonderful subtitle: “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

The movie title served up one of Silicon Valley's most precious buzzwords as the stumbling linguistic blunder of a confused foreigner. You won’t hear “learnings” all that much going forward.

I understand why startups and other technology companies coin gratuitous neologisms. But it’s annoying when the press parrots them. The media should act as the guardians of language and filter out dumb linguistic contrivances.

One persistent and annoying phrase you'll find in the tech press is “form factor.” It means the size and shape or type of something.

Another is “price point.” It means “price.” What's the point of “point”?

Some annoying Silicon Valley words aren't new, but irritating new uses for old words and phrases.

One of the most unusual -- OK, weird -- features of Silicon Valley language is repetitive use of the word “so” to begin sentences when we're answering questions. “So,” replaces the interjection “well” as it is used in the Midwestern and Southeastern American states and elsewhere.

If you ask someone in the South for directions, they're likely to start with “Well, you turn right at the corner...” The word as used here implies that the speaker is thinking about it for a second before providing a considered answer.

In Silicon Valley, they'll say, “So you turn right at the corner…,” which implies that the thinking has already taken place in the past.

The word “so” is used when the answer is very well known -- or at least when the speaker wants to imply that his answer has been thoroughly reviewed by a committee and approved for public release without a nondisclosure agreement.

You'll hear the use of the word “around” to mean “related to” or “associated with.” For example, people might say, “we're tackling all the issues around consumer acceptance.”

Another is the phrase “speaking to,” which means “addresses” or “deals with.” An example: “Our new consumer strategy speaks to the growing demand for GPS functionality.”

These are just a few of the hundreds or thousands of annoying buzzwords incubated and hatched in venture-funded Silicon Valley startups, then forced on the rest of the world by the tech and business press.

Silicon Valley linguistic contrivances like these should be defeated with all the scorn and ridicule we can muster. They replace plain, clear English with the “Look at me! -- I went to Stanford!” insanity that plagues Silicon Valley conversations.

So let’s capture the idea of plain English as a learning that speaks to clearer communication around technology going forward. OK?

In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan+datamation@gmail.co m or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.



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