Disrupt or be disrupted (or yawn) — one buzzword to rule them all

Linguist Geoff Nunberg has a great piece on NPR’s Fresh Air today about what must be the most over-used buzzword in business today: Disrupt / Disruptor / Disruption. Here are some juicy excerpts:

Buzzwords feed off their emotional resonances, not their ideas. And for pure resonance, “disruptive” is hard to beat. It’s a word with deep roots…. One way or another, the word evokes obstreperous rowdies, the impatient people who are always breaking stuff. It says something that “disrupt” is from the Latin for “shatter.”

Disrupt or be disrupted. The consultants and business book writers have proclaimed that as the chronic condition of the age, and everybody is clambering to be classed among the disruptors rather than the disruptees…. These days, people just use “disruptive” to mean shaking things up, though unlike my kindergarten teacher, they always infuse a note of approval….

The wonder is that “disruptive” is still clinging to life out there. There’s a market in language, too, and jargon starts to lose its market share when its air of novelty fades. “Thought leader,” “change agent” and “disruption,” too — as the words get stale, they’re in line to be disrupted themselves by scrappy new buzzwords that can once again convey an illusion of fresh thinking. That’s why jargon always has to replenish itself, the same way slang does — though like slang, it takes a while to work its way from the cool kids’ table to the outskirts of the lunchroom. It wouldn’t be surprising if some people are still saying “disruptive” a decade or two from now. After all, there are still people saying “far out” and wearing those big 1970s eyeglasses, too. The only difference is that slang owns up to being no more than a matter of fashion, while jargon always has to pretend that it’s something else.

Let’s hope this helps bring about the disruption of the ubiquity of Disruption!

Listen to the full story — very entertaining, and spot-on:


Welcome to Spyburbia, USA

Telefon“They couldn’t have been spies…Look what she did with the hydrangeas.

Spyburbia, baby — you heard it here first!

How do you fool so many in suburbia for so long? “She said they were from Canada.”

Yes Virginia, there really are spies everywhere, even in your neighborhood. Especially in your neighborhood, most likely. And if they say they’re from a mysterious blank spot on the globe called “Canada”, call the FBI immediately. [In Ordinary Lives, U.S. Sees the Work of Russian Agents]

Anyone remember that ’70s Charles Bronson B-movie classic, Telefon? As Wikipedia reminds us,

During the Cold War of the 1950s, the Soviet Union planted a number of long-term, deep-cover sleeper agents all over the United States, spies so thoroughly brainwashed that even they didn’t know they were agents; they could only be activated by a special code phrase (a line from Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” followed by their real given names). Their mission was to sabotage crucial parts of the civil and military infrastructure as a precursor to a possible US/USSR active conflict or war.

I think ol’ Bob Frost was probably one of those secret agents as well. Just look at this video — something just doesn’t look quite right:


Calling all prattling gabblers, lubberly louts, flouting milksops, noddy meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddipol-joltheads, and jobbernol goosecaps

Looking for just the right invective to hurl at someone? Give old François Rabelais a go. Specifically, Sir Thomas Urquhart’s 1653 translation of Rabelais’ classic satirical adventure, Gargantua and Pantagruel (written 1532-1542). Here’s a sample:

The bun-sellers or cake-makers were in nothing inclinable to their request; but, which was worse, did injure them most outrageously, called them prattling gabblers, lickorous gluttons, freckled bittors, mangy rascals, shite-a-bed scoundrels, drunken roysters, sly knaves, drowsy loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubberly louts, cozening foxes, ruffian rogues, paltry customers, sycophant-varlets, drawlatch hoydens, flouting milksops, jeering companions, staring clowns, forlorn snakes, ninny lobcocks, scurvy sneaksbies, fondling fops, base loons, saucy coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing braggarts, noddy meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddipol-joltheads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, flutch calf-lollies, grouthead gnat-snappers, lob-dotterels, gaping changelings, codshead loobies, woodcock slangams, ninny-hammer flycatchers, noddypeak simpletons, turdy gut, shitten shepherds, and other suchlike defamatory epithets; saying further, that it was not for them to eat of these dainty cakes, but might very well content themselves with the coarse unranged bread, or to eat of the great brown household loaf.

A shout out to World Wide Words for scratching at this slubberdegullion of the English language.


Coining words and the caprice in names

Great little article about word coinage and naming by Steven Pinker in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, How do we come up with words? Here is a morsel, about the viral nature of baby names and the human tendency to want to be different, but not too different:

Many people assume these fads are inspired by celebrities (Marilyn Monroe made Marilyn popular) or social trends (biblical names are popular during religious revivals; androgynous names are a legacy of feminism). But sociologist Stanley Lieberson has pored through naming data and disproved every one of these hypotheses. The cause of baby names is other baby names. Parents have an ear for names that are a bit distinctive (as if to follow Sam Goldwyn’s advice not to name your son William because every Tom, Dick and Harry is named William) without being too distinctive (only celebrities can get away with naming their children Moon Unit or Banjo). The trends arise when everyone tries to be moderately distinctive and ends up being moderately distinctive in the same way.

I love that advice from Sam Goldwyn. And that bit about everyone trying to be distinctive but ending up being “moderately distinctive in the same way” reminds me of the clusters of like names we see in nearly every industry. Take SUV names, for instance, where all the automakers tend to promote a “rugged individualist” theme, then serve up the same kind of names for their vehicles, often named to evoke either the idea of exploration — Blazer, Discovery, Expedition, Navigator, Safari, Scout, Tracker, Trooper — or of a mythic rugged western pioneer landscape — Montana, Rainier, Santa Fe, Sequoia, Sonoma, Tacoma, Tahoe, Yukon. So all of you rugged individualists out there looking express your distinctiveness through your choice of ride, these big beasts of cars are betraying that ideal by blending their names in with each other.

Also fascinating in this article is the idea that naming trends cannot be reliably predicted or engineered, because they are dependent upon the behavior of the masses, and that behavior is chaotic:

Pundits often treat a culture as if it were a superorganism that pursues goals and finds meaning, just like a person. But the fortunes of words, a cultural practice par excellence, don’t fit that model. Names change with the times, yet they don’t fulfill needs, don’t reflect other social trends and aren’t driven by role models or Madison Avenue. A “trend” is shorthand for the aggregate effects of millions of people making decisions while anticipating and reacting to the decisions made by others, and these dynamics can be stubbornly chaotic.

This unpredictability holds a lesson for our understanding of culture more generally. Like the words in a language, the practices in a culture — every fashion, ritual, common belief — must originate with an innovator, must then appeal to the innovator’s acquaintances and then to the acquaintance’s acquaintances, until it becomes endemic to a community. The caprice in names suggests we should be skeptical of most explanations for other mores and customs.

Yes. Beware of “expert” opinion that labors to convince you that “scientific” explanations — linguistics, focus groups, trend analysis — trumps good old fashioned meaning, story, history, mythology, poetry, rhythm, and shared knowledge when considering names for companies, products, or services. Anything else is just putting ketchup on a potato bug.


Birth of a buzzword: Bacn

This item from today’s New York Times “What’s Online” column, Click if You Read This Column:

Saving Your Bacn Over the last week, a new Web 2.0 buzzword was born: “bacn.” Bacn is not spam; rather, it refers to messages — e-mail newsletters, Facebook friend requests, Twitter updates and the like — that are wanted but not needed. “Notifications you want. But not right now,” is the blogger Andy Quayle’s succinct definition (techburgh.com).

By most accounts, the term was coined — or at least gained traction — during last weekend’s PodCamp Pittsburgh event (podcamppittsburgh.com).

On his blog, Eric Skiff offers possible solutions, which amount to smart e-mail filtering and personal discipline. “Once or twice a day while I’m taking a ‘brain break’ I’ll flip through my labels and take care of any pending friend requests, comments, and any other bacn that’s come in during the day,” he writes (glitchnyc.com).

Already, a Web site, bacn2.com, has appeared to help “spread awareness” of bacn and to help people cope.

As bacn proliferates, it will likely become the new spam, making the whole idea of “bringing home the bacn” much less appealing.