The development sector is buzzing with buzzwords (sorry, I couldn’t resist). I, along with numerous others resort to using them so that our content can belong in the world we are trying to reach, and belong to the people we are trying to reach. So, when the readers read a familiar buzzword they know (or have to assume they know) what we are talking about. These words, we hope, convey gravitas, that we know what we’re talking about and that we have our finger on the pulse.

There are a lot of studies written on the use of buzzwords not just in the development sector but for all sorts of marketing. I am not trying to rival any of these studies or go into the academics of semantics. I would however like to question whether at this time, when so many of our conversations are online, when so many hearts and minds are reached online and not in a pub or a café, we should be reevaluating our use of buzzwords?

Leaving gaps for misinformation to thrive

I’m not about to wage a war on buzzwords. They help the reader find what they are looking for. What I’m questioning is perhaps the context surrounding them. Take for instance the buzzword ‘innovative’. It is omnipresent within and without the development sector.  I use it too. But I often see it floating adrift without a context that might set that particular ‘innovative’ apart and anchor it to that particular text. To one person innovative might mean one thing and to another something completely different.

At the same time buzzwords are also useful because they spare the reader from trawling through reams of complex information. But they need very distinct and tailor-made content surrounding them. Without it, these terms and other kinds of jargon leave a lot to the imagination of the reader and for the large part they are very ambiguous. Perhaps we as the writers presume too much of our readers? And while this can be seen as a testament to the bond between the writer and reader, because our reach (thanks to social media) has exploded, sometimes our bond with the reader wears thin. And more often than not, this results in large gaps between what is written and what is then understood by the reader.

I believe it is in these gaps that misinformation thrives. Something, we can all acknowledge is a growing problem.

Of course, I’m not insinuating that the ambiguity of buzzwords is to blame for the spread of misinformation. I think, however, that they do contribute to it. Not just that; they alienate people who may not be privy to these seemingly coded messages, creating a bit of an ‘insider’ feeling.

Illuminate not eliminate

How can we fill these gaps? We’ve established that we can’t eliminate buzzwords, particularly in an age powered by search engines that rely on keywords. We could, instead, illuminate them. Buzzwords can gain or lose their power based on the words that precede and succeed them. For instance, as author of the paper ‘Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse’, Andrea Cornwall writes “Embedding words in chains of equivalence that secure meanings that would otherwise be pared away… can give tired buzzwords a new lease of life.”[1]

She also, poetically describes words as constellations when she writes “Thinking of words in terms of constellations rather than in the singular opens up further strategies for reclaiming ‘lost’ words, as well as salvaging some of the meanings that were never completely submerged.”

I recommend her paper, if you’re battling buzzwords too.

To illuminate buzzwords we need to surround them with context that sheds light on what we precisely mean in that particular instance. This I find is especially vital since content and context should anyway be tailor-made to its target audience. Personally, I’m striving to find that balance between breathing new life into the buzzwords by surrounding it with ‘words in chains of equivalence that secure their meaning’ and not using contexts that have been done to death. Buzzwords are merely bait, it’s the context (or frame) surrounding them is the real catch.


[1] Andrea Cornwall (2007) Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse, Development in Practice, 17:4-5, 471-484, DOI: 10.1080/09614520701469302


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