I love stories about words and how quickly they fall in and out of fashion.
January 14th, 2011

I love stories about words and how quickly they fall in and out of fashion. A Toronto-based marketing company called The Creative Group (not the most creative name, I agree, but…) reported this week on a survey they recently conducted about current buzzwords. They asked advertizing and marketing execs (not me or you, surely) “what is the most annoying or overused buzzword in the creative/marketing industry today?” These are the top-ranked responses:

1. “Social media/social networking”
2. “Synergy”
3. “Innovative/innovation”
4. “Extra value/value added”
5. “Going green”
6. “Free”
7. “ROI/return on investment”
8. “Culture change”
9. “Think out of the box”
10. “Interactive”
11. “Proactive”
12. “Social media expert”
13. “Multitasking”
14. “End of the day”
15. “Integrated/Integration”

I fully agree that some of these exhausted phrases should be put to sleep. Now whenever someone says we have to think outside the box I marvel at the irony. Thinking outside the box means creative, fresh, original thinking. Drawing on clichés and meaningless expressions to promote originality is self-defeating. It is thinking deep inside the box. Let’s throw the box out altogether. We’re all sick of it.

My flesh crawls when I hear the word “synergy,” too. That’s so last decade, isn’t it? We are all pretty fed up with innovation, a word the Canadian Government has been squeezing to death for at least twenty years, but I am not sure we have yet come up with a better, equally abstract noun. Going green might be way too tired for the advertizing business, but it is still working for most of us to capture a process of, um, naturalizing our environment, pardon the expression. Extra value/Value added and ROI/Return on Investment give non-accountant types the creeps. Those expressions belong to a material world we may live in but do not necessarily want to draw on as a measure of all that is meaningful. Help! Is there a humanist out there who can supply a handier term?

Interesting, but many of the other words and phrases on the list have to do with electronic communication. How quickly these terms now move from being trendy to tepid. I guess we now multitask because computers make it possible, and we can all easily tell the difference between interactive and non interactive communication, which helps when you are trying to establish a dialogue (a phrase that tires me out as I write it). It is, in fact, pretty difficult to substitute another word for interactive, and until we do I reckon we will be harnessing it. Social media and social networking both, er,  jumped the shark before Mark Zuckerberg made his last gajillion, but as simple descriptors of how Facebook et al actually function they seem to do the trick (er, spot the cliché in that sentence). Again, how else to capture the nature of so much electronic yakking?

If surveyed I would have offered some of the words on the list, but not others. I think we cremated on-a-go-forward basis in 2007, but you can still hear politicians resuscitating the phrase. Indeed, a quick scan of quoted material in the local newspaper will, sadly, reveal enough trite phrases to fill a blue garbage bag.

University web sites are loaded with empty phrases, too. It’s unavoidable. “World-class” facilities, “ideas that shape the world,” and “state-of-the-art laboratories” dominate many of these. A wise student will run from such sites to others that offer more inspired turns of phrase. At the risk of boasting, I have to say our own marketing and communications department at Memorial is simply brilliant at reminting clichés, drawing on common expressions and familiar idioms, as the American artist Lichtenstein does in the art work above, to say something utterly new. Just check out the various Memorial view books, brochures, reports and ad campaigns this last year alone. No wonder the unit is racking up more awards than Colin Firth will ever have on his mantle.

But to return to the main topic, I can scarcely speculate about why The Creative Group reports that the word “free” is dated. Free? As in no free lunch? At the end of the day (sorry), is there no free world? Is free really gone with the wind? Is it an ex word? Or merely resting? Discuss.


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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