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Buzzwords and the dustbin of history

Telling good from bad

Leon Trotsky. From (Do they enforce copyright?)

Some buzzwords and buzz phrases survive. Most are consigned to the dustbin of history—this phrase (translated variously) being most associated with Leon Trotsky. Mark Liberman of U Penn. traces its British origins back to 1870.* I choose this term to describe the fate of most buzzwords because it is an example of a turn of phrase that has survived.

How long? Ronald Reagan (more likely, his speechwriter) chose to use a common variation of this phrase referring specifically to the fate of Marxism in a 1982 speech to the British Parliament:

… freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history.

So what makes one word or phrase stick and another stink?

To me, lasting coinages are clever and apt while buzzing ephemera manage to combine pretension and crassitude. There are other criteria, but ultimately the test is endurance. Does the word survive in the culture or subculture in which it’s used?

Two phrases currently making the rounds are cloud computing and curate content. The first connotes, metaphorically, our better computing natures; the second is a borrowing from the world of art and artifacts. Too obviously, it is meant to lend an aura of secret knowledge to choosing (sometimes called stealing) and managing “content,” which is itself a buzzword. Clearly, I’ve already decided about these two newish buzzwords. You can search your own linguistic conscience.

For anybody willing to bet which—if either—still has cultural currency in twenty years, I’ll gladly make book on each: I’ll give you 20 to 1 that the cloud survives and the same odds that curate will be tossed into ….


*Marx had a “Reader’s Ticket” and did most of his research and writing for Das Kapital (1867) at the British Museum. Lenin, under the pseudonym Jacob Richter, also had a Ticket that was issued in 1902. Trotsky also, by most accounts, was admitted as a Reader there in the same year, although no Ticket has been found bearing his name nor any he might have used.


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Posted in Communicate, Communicate Your Technology
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