Overused Business Words

When I get on an airplane, I like to bring on board the latest issue of The Economist, the British magazine that’s sometimes criticized for “neoliberalism.” Especially by socialists. Years ago, I was at an academic conference in England, making small talk with two English professors during a break, and I mentioned reading an article in The Economist. One of the professors almost snorted (English people thankfully don’t actually snort so this was more of a stifled snort) and then sneered, “Do you believe in markets?” (English people don’t sneer, either, but anyway…) I later learned that this is a rhetorical question that socialists ask to criticize people who aren’t socialists. Confession: I am not a socialist. Anyway, I like reading The Economist because it’s funny and informed. And, most of all, it doesn’t assume that the United States is the only important country in the world–there are plenty of articles about really important things going on around the world that Americans never hear about.

For my flight to Boston for my 40th MIT college reunion, I bought the May 14th, 2022 issue. It took a long time to read–I didn’t make it all the way to the back of the magazine until my return flight home. On page 63, I found an article by Bartleby criticizing the overuse of certain business lingo. Two of those words, “innovation” and “collaboration,” are my own expertise, and I think they’re incredibly important to a business, so I was about to take this criticism personally. But as I read the article, I found that I agreed those words are overused to the point that we don’t know what they really mean or how to actually apply them. One useful signal that a word is meaningless is when the opposite of the word is obviously ridiculous–like saying “we want to break down the silos that prevent people from communicating effectively.” Of course, no one would argue that silos are good or that don’t want people to communicate! Here’s Bartleby’s list of overused words:

  • Innovation
  • Collaboration
  • Purpose
  • Sustainability
  • Flexibility

What’s your favorite overused buzzword?

*Citation: Bartleby, “The woolliest words in business,” The Economist, May 14th, 2022, page 63. The photo of the man in the clouds accompanies the article.

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