Buzzword bullying

I've lately noticed a tendency of technical folks to use "buzzword" as somewhat of a reflex epithet. We all love nudge-nudge jokes at business folks' expense, playing buzzword bingo at a particularly stultifying presentation, and the like, but I sometimes think that the practice drifts unnecessarily into serious discourse as a cheap way to shut down an opposing point.

A term is a buzzword when its use does not convey any meaning, but is meant to lend a false weight to some claim. People usually think of words and phrases such as "synergy" and "push the envelope" as buzzwords. I have almost never seen these two examples used other than as buzzwords, but certainly any regular word can become a buzzword in particular context. Words such as "value", "quality", "enterprise", "success", "architecture", "metrics" and "middleware" have their important uses, and are also sometimes used as buzzwords. I'd always thought this was simple common sense, but I've come across recent instances where I've seen anyone using these words, even in obviously meaningful ways, dismissed with the "b" word.

Certainly some suspect words are more suspicious than others, and some words have the misfortune of being popular components of buzzword phrases. "value", "success" and "business" are definitely in this category, becoming "value added", "success factors" and "business benefit", with "business value" coming off as a beacon of buzz. This does not condemn even such suspicious words to the dustbin. It's all about context. Here are a couple of words I've seen that are perfectly legitimate, but that some people seem bent on eliminating from the language (not that there is any chance in hell that they'll succeed).

  • Middleware. Used properly it stems from several computing disciplines such as model/value/controller and client/server that sought to articulate a separation of software into the part that stores and manages data, and the part that presents information to the user. Middleware is just a general term for software that is not really suited to either partition, but tends to sit in between these. It is a pretty neutral term, and you certainly don't end up notching up points for a piece of software just by calling it "middleware", so it would seem a rather poor buzzword. Then again, I have seen it used as a mumbo-jumbo term for software for which the speaker has trouble articulating a role. I think that's rare, but it would count in the buzz column.

  • Enterprise. The word simply describes a particular subset of organizations, in general ones that are closely bound by some fiduciary pressure, such as a corporation's responsibility to shareholders. The special needs of such environments does provide unique challenges to software, and thus I think "enterprise" is as often a useful distinguishing term as a mindless buzzword. A good example of a compound here is "enterprise architecture". This is a useful term that describes systems that are put together such that they work well across the departmental divisions of an enterprise, which is difficult because such divisions usually involve severe changes in focus, from research to operations to marketing to legal affairs, for example. Of course I've also seen "enterprise architecture" used by vendors as a way of saying "this is isn't your hippie open-source, Web jockey, script-and-glue technology, buddies". That definitely warrants a good scoring of the bingo card.

It's far more refreshing when debaters create and play on words rather than trying to stifle them. While I think it's silly to yell "bingo" every time someone says "enterprise", I quite approve of the snarky term "enterprisey". And anyway, I think that such tactics work a lot better than automatic buzzword bashing. I'm reading Nunberg's Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show and it strikes me that the right wing's success with setting the terms of linguistic discourse suggests that buzzword bashing is a losing tactic, anyway.

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