What's a Buzzword?

Krusty the Clown
"Excuse me, but proactive and paradigm? Aren't these just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important?".


CTRPhotos / Getty Images

Buzzword is an informal term for a fashionable word or phrase that's often used more to impress or persuade than to inform. Also called a buzz term, buzz phrase, vogue word, and fashion word.

The second edition of Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines buzzword as "a word or phrase, often sounding authoritative or technical, that is a vogue term in a particular profession, field of study, popular culture, etc."

In Communication at a Distance, Kaufer and Carley nicely observe that buzzwords "come under attack with the recognition that a person may be trying to pass off for substance or meat the hum of a buzzword's remote implications."

Examples and Observations

Dunstan Prial: For months the [Federal Reserve] used the word ‘patience’ to describe its stance toward a rate hike. Having lost ‘patience’ in March, the new buzzword is ‘flexible.’ As used by the Fed, the terms are essentially synonymous. But get used to hearing ‘flexible.’ It’s going to be around for a while.

Tom Goodwin: We've long lamented the rise of trendy language in advertising and business, but while we’ve played buzzword bingo and occasionally pointed fingers at those who speak in clichés, something more serious lies beneath the jargon. The catchphrases we use serve as a shared language—they’re how we signal our belonging to the tribe of marketers. But when highly precise terms are misappropriated in an attempt to project a false sense of authority, that’s when we lose meaning... Iterate. Once iterate meant a design process where various elements would progress through sequential steps, to hone in on the optimal solution; now it means nothing beyond merely describing a stage in a process.

Lucy Bernholz: The dictionary tells us that iterate means to do again and again. In its buzzword guise, it is one of many design terms that has jumped the rhetorical fence, pulled along by related terms like 'innovate,' into philanthropy. Sexier than your grandmother’s pilot program, iterations mean trying something small, learning from it, and improving as you go along.

Bill Shorten: [T]oo often, the word reform is co-opted to add a veneer of credibility to lazy thinking and bad ideas. Reform must be more than a password politicians whisper in search of approval. Or a buzzword tacked on to a poorly crafted policy. True reform isn’t a test of rhetoric, or salesmanship, or spin.

Chris Arnold: Leverage is a word heard frequently during the current financial crisis. It means borrowing heavily to maximize investment returns. The problem is that leverage was used to invest in mortgages that went bad. The new buzzword in the financial world is deleverage.

Anya Kamenetz: Let's do a fact check. Personalized learning is a buzzword for software programs that act like automatic tutors: giving feedback, allowing students to go at their own pace and recommending lessons based on a student's previous work.

Helen Cunningham and Brenda Greene: The Fortune 500 communications professionals surveyed for this stylebook are split down the middle when it comes to the use of buzzwords in business writing. Approximately half disdain buzzwords of any kind while the other half think some buzzwords are effective (for instance, bottom line, globalize, incentivize, leverage, paradigm shift, proactive, robust, synergy and value-added). As a general rule, use buzzwords judiciously, always keeping the readers in mind. If a buzzword is lively and capable of injecting some spunk into a dull sentence (and it does not alienate the readers), then use it.

Rex Huppke: I'm no fan of buzzwords. I dislike them so much I created my own buzzword to describe the fight against overused workplace gibberish: dynamic jargon disruption. It's a phrase I'm hoping will catch on, but even a nationally renowned dynamic jargon disrupter like myself will admit that some buzzwords have their place. One of those is 'engagement.'
You hear it a lot these days, and with good reason. Engagement, which is essentially how much you dig your job, has been shown quantitatively and qualitatively to have a direct impact on productivity.
"It's a simple concept, really. If you like your job and care about your job and feel invested in the work you're doing, you'll work harder and the company will retain quality workers.

Jonathan I. Klein: Of all the buzzwords to evolve in management science, 'change' may be the most venerable of all. A buzzword is assumed to represent such a good thing that its use and form are unexamined.

Buzzword Bingo: Coining the Lingo: Office jargon has become so prevalent in the UK, people are using phrases and happily admitting they have no idea what they are talking about. A new survey by Office Angles found 65% of those who attend daily meetings frequently encountered business jargon.
"It has even spurned a new boardroom pastime--buzzword bingo, in which employees gleefully tick off corporate-speak used by their bosses.

Tom Alderman: Every decade seems to have its particular buzz words that roar through the culture and become mantras in media, business, and political lexicons, then disappear after a few years like Boy George. Topping the business charts in 1970s was the very buzzy 'Management by Objective'--MBO. CEOs and Governors twitched with excitement over it. And remember 'synergism,' in the 1980s? It sounded vaguely sexual. America was going through one of its frequent merger cycles and 'synergy' was the yellow brick road. That is until 'vertical integration' came along.

The Simpsons:

  • Executive: We at the network want a dog with attitude. He's edgy, he's in your face. You've heard the expression "let's get busy"? Well, this is a dog who gets biz-zay! Consistently and thoroughly.
  • Krusty the Clown: So he's proactive, huh?
  • Executive: Oh, God, yes. We're talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.
  • Meyers: Excuse me, but proactive and paradigm? Aren't these just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important? Not that I'm accusing you of anything like that. I'm fired, aren't I?
  • Executive: Oh, yes.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What's a Buzzword?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-buzzword-1689189. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What's a Buzzword? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-buzzword-1689189 Nordquist, Richard. "What's a Buzzword?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-buzzword-1689189 (accessed June 8, 2023).