A buzzword is a buzzword

by | 22.10.2020

What do the following terms have in common?

Agility, New Work, Transformation, Digitalisation, Change, People Development, People & Culture, new normality, sustainable, culture, VUCA, Liquid Leadership, Digital Leadership, Future Leadership, New Leadership, New Learning, Digital Twin, Empowerment, Complexity, agile, eye level, Purpose, Agilist, Innovation, Authenticity, Appreciation, Resilience and Mindset.

These terms are buzzwords or are perceived as such.

How do you perceive the terms mentioned? Do you share the assessment? Would you have mentioned other terms?

I share the assessment of some of them (or should I say judgement?), I am not sure about some of them and – I admit – I even had to google one term (which one I will tell you later). Of course the list is not complete, it can’t be (why that is will come later). But it’s not because I asked for buzzwords at very short notice via a social media ccount. In fact, two more expressions were mentioned, but I’ll reveal these too later. One of them is an almost undiscovered, secret buzzword and as such is hardly noticed. And the other one I find very funny.

What is a buzzword? – Part 1

The Cambridge Dictionary1

defines buzzword in three slightly different ways:

  • “a word or expression from a particular subject area that has become fashionable by being used a lot, especially on television and in the newspapers.”
    Example: “‘Diversity’ is the new buzzword in education.”
  • “a word or expression from a particular subject area that has become fashionable because it has been used a lot.”
    Example: “Companies know there’s nothing like a hot new buzzword, like ‘nanotechnology’ or ‘sustainability’, to get the attention of investors.”
  • “a word or expression that is very often used, esp. in public discussions, because it represents opinions that are popular.”
    Example: “‘Listening to the people’ was the buzzword among politicians.

If we exclude the references to “television” and “newspapers” – obviously the definition has not been adapted to more modern media – different insights can be gained from the variants:

  • The German translation is catchword. As I have never heard anyone use this term before, I do not want to start with it.
  • It is a word or expression used in certain fields. From this alone it follows that not everyone can know or perceive all buzzwords as such. Or to put it another way: If you move in another subject area, you will probably have little contact with individual terms and thus not be able to perceive them as buzzwords. For this reason, it is impossible to compile a complete list of such expressions.
  • Through repetition and frequent use, a term can become a buzzword and become “in fashion”.
  • The term generates attention. And the newer it is, the more attention it generates or can generate.
  • And it represents something.

I will go into the last two points (attention and representation) in a moment.

What is a buzzword? – Part 2

I like the explanations in the Cambridge Dictionary. Nevertheless, I would like to make two additions:

  • The perception of terms as buzzwords is subjective.
  • Buzzwords have an effect. And this is also subjective.

“A digital twin is a digital representation of a tangible or intangible object or process from the real world in the digital world. It is irrelevant whether the counterpart already exists in the real world or will only exist in the future.”2

This is the definition of a “Digital Twin”. I had to google this definition. Although I spend a lot of time in the digital world and work for a software development service provider, I didn’t know the term. Maybe I had heard it before and forgotten it again.  Either way: in a way it is a term from my field of expertise. Two things arise from this:

  • To perceive a term as a buzzword requires to know the term. That may not be surprising now, but:
  • Even if you know a term and it is frequently used, you do not have to perceive it as a buzzword.

In other words: To understand words and expressions as buzzwords is subjective.

The buzzword as label

If buzzwords are subjective, then their effect is also subjective. Take the term “agility”, for example. In my perception almost everything has been said about agility. Almost everything from almost everyone. For me, the term has a different effect than “Digital Twin”, for example. This term generated curiosity. With agility it is different, especially since I read and read a lot about the topic and it “lives” in the centre of my subject area. Is agility important and interesting for many organisations? Yes! Is the introduction of agile principles a challenge for many organisations? Of course! And do I benefit from agility as a concept in marketing? Sure!

Many people benefit from buzzwords. For example consultants, authors or publishers. Ideally also customers. Agility for example initiates the discussion of values such as self-commitment, courage, openness, focus and respect.3

Organisations should benefit from such a discussion. By the way, there is a term for handling these values: Mindset. Caution: this is of course a buzzword (see above). Therefore better: attitude. Ah, caution!

There is a situation where I actually become cautious: when terms are labelled and I suspect a message behind the labelling:

  • The topic is fashionable, but it is not sustainable, it is nothing new, it is not worthwhile to deal with it. Labelling acts as an implicit judgement.
  • The person who labels the term almost automatically rises to the status of an expert, as he or she is able to assess a topic with a single word.

Maybe I am wrong, but that would not be too bad at this point, because my thesis is: buzzwords have an effect and this is also subjective.

The almost undiscovered buzzword

I had promised you two more terms. Two expressions that were mentioned as answers to our tweet. They are:

  • buzzword.
  • informatik (in English: informatics).

In fact, the word “buzzword” as such is also a buzzword. As an expression it is much more common than the German translation “catchword”. Whenever a term is labelled accordingly, it is obviously used. The more often it is used, the more popular it becomes. Everyone feels that they know the term and uses it. Thus, it transports its own representation within itself and generates attention just by using it.

“‘Eye level’ is a buzzword.”
“Yes, really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Yes, in many companies, eye level is required by employees. And many companies are now addressing this issue.”
“Then it must be important! What exactly is it about?”

And already a topic is getting attention. Or to put it another way: anyone offering a service in the area of “eye level” has a great interest, at least at the beginning, that the term is perceived as a buzzword.

“Informatik” is the second term that I had not mentioned at the beginning. The entry is by Heiko Bartlog, who regularly publishes articles as a guest author here on the t2informatik blog. He was joking, recognizing the addition: “Oh no, that was in the 80s 😉.” From the point of view of t2informatik this is especially funny, because it makes our company name a buzzword. Another lesson learned … 🙂



If you like the article, please share it in your network. And if you see aspects differently or want to add to it, please leave a comment. Maybe a buzzword is just a buzzword for you, maybe it’s more than a label or something else than a judgement?

[1] Cambridge Dictionary
[2] Definition Digital Twin (in German)
[3] Mindset and Values

Michael Schenkel has published additional articles in the t2informatik Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: The sports metaphor as motivator

The sports metaphor as motivator

t2informatik Blog: VUCA, so what?!

VUCA, so what?!

t2informatik Blog: Transformation is a constant

Transformation is a constant

Michael Schenkel
Michael Schenkel

Head of Marketing, t2informatik GmbH

Michael Schenkel has a heart for marketing - so it is fitting that he is responsible for marketing at t2informatik. He likes to blog, likes a change of perspective and tries to offer useful information - e.g. here in the blog - at a time when there is a lot of talk about people's decreasing attention span. If you feel like it, arrange to meet him for a coffee and a piece of cake; he will certainly look forward to it!​