Buzzwords first became a “thing” in 1946 when business students from Harvard developed certain terms to discuss their results. But honestly, buzzwords have been around for far longer. Some have become so ingrained in our common lexicon that we no longer even notice them. In this series, we’ll take a look at where buzzwords come from, a deep dive into one of the biggest ones going today, and finally, how to use them properly.

The Business of Buzzwords, Part 1: Where Do Our Buzzwords Come From?

Let’s imagine a LinkedIn word cloud. On any given day, you’d probably see the word “salary” or “conference” looming large. But it’s probably likely that you’d also see “IoB”, “discretionary effort,” or “10X.” So who are the thought leaders on the bleeding edge who think outside the box to move the needle on these new normal phrases?

Well, first off, you don’t need to be a world famous business visionary like Mark Cuban, Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates to invent new buzzwords (although Gates is credited with first opining that “content is king”). These philosopher-kings didn’t become who they are because of their dipped-in-gold wordsmithing. Buzzwords mainly come from the shadows, entering from behind the scenes, generally from some analytical thinkspace.

These culture codes hit critical mass largely because they help to explain some common phenomenon that sometimes don’t show up in your worldview until they point them out. 

So who are these language wellsprings that keep peppering the language of business like some experimental chef? 

Academia and psychology

You probably have heard — and possibly abused — the term “disruptor.” But did you know that it came from the Harvard Business School? Professor Clayton Christensen spearheaded the idea in an article in 1995, and gained critical mass in 1997 with his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. This book began a wave of disruption, particularly in the tech sector. Suddenly, there were disruptors everywhere. Conferences and seminars sprung up all about disruptive innovation. Titans of industry, from Steve Jobs to Reed Hastings, were disciples. 

HBS has a solid bench of buzzword producers. We also have “change management” to thank them for, along with many others.

Another paradigm shift came from the west coast when UC Berkeley professor/philosopher Thomas Kuhn floated the term “paradigm shift.”

Gote Nyman, formerly a psychology professor at the University of Helsinki, adapted the “Internet of Things” idea into the “Internet of Behaviors” (IoB) in 2012, explaining that behavior itself could be data mined. And if you drop the word “synergy” into your business speak, you have British psychologist Raymond Cattell to thank.

And if you’re putting in “discretionary effort,” you’re actually taking part in something that has roots in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory — from 1943.

Let’s face it: when it comes to coining new phrases, it would be hard not to put educators and psychologists on the list.

Marketers, visionaries, and Ted talkers

Then: Tom Peters, self help pioneer, described his “personal brand” in 1997. Economist Vilfredo Pareto (or a least his team) developed the “80/20 rule” of sales. The concept of “gamification” is attributed to a computer programmer/inventor named Nick Pelling.

Now: Facebook is said to have begun the use of the term “thumb stopping.” That’s right, Facebook has become the 21st Century’s E.F. Hutton.

Blasting forward: Grant Cardone, author and entrepreneur, is the brains behind the “10X” movement.

There’s also the use of adding “ing” to the end of a noun to transform it into an action word. “Solutioning” is a recent example, although there’s not much credit to be taken for that one.

Have you ever used the word “humaning?” It’s a word that was developed by the Mondelez Corporation that aligned with their concept of treating their customers like humans, not targets. It was not an overly successful PR word choice.

Gardeners of a growing language

The simple truth is that we are all capable of germinating a new buzzword. We take our communication cues from widely flung spaces; sociologists, historians, journalists, sports, military, even humorists have added new phrases to our everyday speech.  

The buzzwords that we use in the business world have a slightly different origin story, however. They’re usually concept-driven, invented for specific industries to explain a specific macro issue.

Buzzwords are shortcuts. They’re social identifiers (if you use a hot buzzword, you’ve got to be plugged in, right? Or maybe you just can use Google.). They’re ”inside baseball” (common buzzword!). What they aren’t always are communicators. If you haven’t heard the latest buzzword, you might miss the overall point that is, well, 10Xing the point.

Don Seaman spends his professional life trying to put the alphabet into the right order to construct coherent thoughts that people can read. Now he does that for Surprise. You can find out more about this failed musician and retired superhero on LinkedIn and Twitter.