June 12, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Buzzwords – issues, the environment

Posted in jargon/buzzwords at 6:00 am by dlseltzer

A few weeks ago, a reader wrote:

I have issues with the use of the word issues as a synonym for problems, as in the note below.  Do you?

I can see saying something like “There are various issues on the agenda for the meeting,” but not, as I recently read in a student paper, “Even the most technologically-advanced software will have initial issues.”

That same week, I received a writing tip in a similar vein:

The buzzword “environment”, meaning “situation,” creeps into many reports. It can usually be omitted or reworded to be more specific.

Weak: In the US, the prevailing laws and regulatory environment in each state can change quickly, which, in turn, can fundamentally alter the economics of operating within those states.

Better: In the US, prevailing laws and regulations in each state can change quickly. This can fundamentally alter the economics of operating within those states.

Both writers are concerned with buzzwords. Buzzwords are words or phrases that are in vogue or popular. They usually don’t last a long time, and they can be jargon but aren’t always. In fact, the two the writers wrote about aren’t jargon, that is, they are not associated with any particular profession.

The problem with buzzwords is that they often obfuscate rather than illuminate. In this age of political correctness, we don’t want to say something that may connote negativity, so we talk about issues rather than problems. Some people define them differently (as issue that is difficult to solve becomes a problem), but I don’t believe that. An issue is just a euphemism for problem most of the time.  In the writer’s example, he wrote about “technologically-advanced software having issues.” Is it really a problem to say that a piece of software has problems?

And we talk about environment to avoid specificity, I think. In the current political environment, Congress is unlikely to pass an immigration reform bill. By talking about the political environment, we don’t have to spell out problems such as the right wing, conservative tea party and divisive Democratic and Republican partisan stands.

[NOTE: instead of ‘problems’ in the last sentence, I started to write ‘issues.’ Yup, I  am  afflicted by buzzwords, too.]

Two buzzwords that I currently find really annoying are ‘leverage’ and ‘synergy.’ And, oh yes, I could do without ‘big data,’ too.

The problem with buzzwords is they can obscure meaning, and we strive for clarity in grace in our writing. We want to be precise, and often times buzzwords mean so little that they make our writing meaningless, too.

So let’s eschew buzzwords when we can, and keep our writing environment as unpolluted as possible.




  1. Jeff said,

    Unfortunately, the buzzword “leverage” is a word I have to use all too often. I work in the tech field as a marketing writer, and people actually think it’s a good way to use the word for some reason. I don’t pretend to understand it–I just try to word the sentence so I don’t have to use it. Utilize is one I can’t stand…

    • dlseltzer said,

      I hate utilize, too, over-utilized!

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