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The Origins of Buzzwords




By Anatoly Liberman

Everybody seems to resent buzzwords, and everybody uses them. It may therefore be of some interest to look at the origin of those universally reviled favorites. Language consists of ready-made blocks. When we want to express gratitude, we say thank you. The reaction is also predictable, even though the formula changes from decade to decade. At one time, people used to respond with if you please, don’t mention it, or not at all. All three yielded to you are welcome, and now I constantly hear no problem, which irritates me (of course, no problem).

Countless phrases exist whose rigid structure no one notices. We do our homework and make mistakes. Do is a synonym of make, but because of some caprice of usage, homework cannot be made, while mistakes cannot be done. We make do with this caprice, and only foreigners are aware of it because they have to learn each combination individually. But when a speaker, unable to field a question or bluff his way out of it, admits that he has not done his homework and promises to get back to the drawing board, milk goes sour in my refrigerator a thousand miles away from the place where the conference is held. Language is the mirror of the mind, and if the mind is trivial, the language reflecting it cannot help being trivial. Social life, to the extent that it is devoid of content, fosters inanity. Time and again we overhear dialogues of the following type: “Hi Jenny! How are you?” “Hi Sue.” (kiss, kiss) “I am fine. What about yourself?” “I am fine. How is John?” “John is fine, thank you.” (in the buzzworld, everybody is fine by definition) “Active as always?” “No, he is on disability now. You remember he broke his arm last year and can no longer play, but doctors expect full recovery.” “I am so sorry!” “It’s OK. Well, I must be running. It was nice seeing you.” “We must have a cup of coffee one day. Say hello at home.” “I will.” The conversation was not useless, for it showed to both parties that they are still on good terms, but from a linguistic point of view, we were present at an exchange between two animated tape recorders.

The cliché to do one’s homework is a fact of life. There is no other stylistically neutral way to express the idea (at least in present day English), whereas the verbal form of the apology I have not done my homework is the result of choice. In principle, nothing is wrong with this apology except that it has been used too many times. And here is the rub (or this is where the shoe pinches). Most buzzwords were at one time pithy sayings in the style of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, expressive epithets, or colorful metaphors. Everybody liked them and by overuse robbed them of their bloom. This is how familiar quotations become too familiar and witty sayings stop making us smile. An interesting case is the experience of two authors who worked as a team. When a good joke occurred to both of them, it was not allowed into the text. The rule was: if a joke could occur to two people, it could also occur to someone else. As a result, their books are an undying source of merriment years after they were published. The names of the authors are Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. Their satirical novels are titled “The Twelve Chairs” and “Little Golden Calf”; both are available in English (the original language was Russian, and the action is set in the late twenties of the 20th century).

In everyday life we cannot pause every moment for fear of pronouncing something banal, but the worst offenders are known and can be avoided. In my morning newspaper, I always read letters to the editor. Two of them usually begin with the words: “I am (sick) and tired of hearing…” This being the case, do not complain of your tiredness every time you write to a newspaper: you are not another Shakespeare composing his Sonnet 66 anew. Fascinating is a good word, but today those who prefer to stay away from things paltry and pawed over should try to do without it, for it has been worn too thin. The same discriminating few will not call every impressive thing awesome. The Oxford English Dictionary notes the figurative use of the adjective seminal (seminal thoughts) as early as 1883, but the fashion for it goes back to the first post-World War II years. Now every scholarly publication that has made a stir is called seminal—enough reason to exclude it from one’s vocabulary and let that bookish semen die without issue.

Other buzzwords owe their existence to the ineradicable impulse of most people to pretend that they are better-educated than they really are. Hence the popularity of utilize at the expense of use or employ (whichever fits the context) and the ugly slang verb morph “to change.” A spurious veneer of Latin is expected to lend glamor to trite statements (and it probably did when utilize and morph arose). As H. W. Fowler, the author of the immortal book Modern English Usage might put it, utilize is not wrong, it is merely repugnant. To save energy, human beings tend to choose the path of least resistance. Chattering in one’s native language requires minimal effort, but it can be reduced even more by peppering speech with fillers. Perhaps fillers do not belong with buzzwords, but I will mention them for completeness’ sake. I have once devoted a post to actually, like, and you know. Basically is another parasite. I was actually sick last week. It is basically dangerous to predict future events. True, very true.

Most things end up as rubbish. Words follow this cruel trend. Yet some of then can be saved from such ignominy. All it takes is to remember that language is not only a means of communication but also an artifact, a thing of beauty. Those who pay attention to the content and the form of what they say try to preserve their individuality in speech and steer clear of buzzwords. Speech codes are rampant all over the country, courses in sensitivity are required in many places, and personal freedom is defended more fiercely than honor (the buzz synonym for honor is integrity). Against this background it is curious to observe how insensitive many people are when it comes to politically neutral speech (the buzz synonym for reasoned conversation is discourse) and how often, once they open their mouths, they become indistinguishable from their neighbors.

Speech formulas have been around forever. In certain genres they were highly valued. For instance, Homer’s poems are made up almost entirely of what I have referred to above as ready-made blocks (wine-colored sea, ox-eyed Hera, and the like). The same is (actually, basically) true of Beowulf and other great medieval works. Prose is structured differently and depends neither on such blocks or buzzwords. The same holds for conversation, and their use is a matter of personal preference and culture. Some will fight the rubbish, others will amass it. It is a free world after all. Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung. Right?

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. janes'_kid

    I was a young adult before someone pulled me aside and said “When someone says ‘How are you?’ they are not inquiring about your health.”

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