Category Archives: Buzzword

1: an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen
2: a voguish word or phrase —called also buzz phrase (Merriam-Webster)

What’s so disruptive about “disruptive”?

According to Google’s Ngram graph generator, the phrase “disruptive technology” appeared in print in the mid 1990s. Another phenomenon appeared at the same time: the dot.com bubble.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, recently wrote an article titled “Startups are not as disruptive as they appear,” adding:

“…the rapid growth of companies like AOL and Amazon —no matter the strength of their underlying businesses— whetted Wall Street’s appetite for exponential growth. And young founders took the bait, prioritizing inflated valuations over sustainable business models. The ideal shifted from building a company to getting it acquired.” (TIME magazine, March 21, 2016)

My readers might surmise that I’m about to indicate the correct Spanish translation for “disruptive”.  Alas, Fundéu has already done it:

disruptive-disruptivo-fundeu

I disagree, since we can use innovador, radical, revolucionario among other terms. As useful as Fundéu is for us translators and language users, I don’t just grab the first option. First, let’s see how the word is used in contemporary English. The American Heritage Dictionary (online version) defines disruptive thus:

disruptive-definition-ahd

In this short analysis of the adjective disruptive, specific lexicogrammatical coordinates are required. It is not enough to define a word but to see what other words can be used in its stead. Here’s a list of conventional synonyms from Thesaurus.com:

disruptive-synonyms-thesaurus-com

We find more up-to-date information in the online MacMillan dictionary. The new usage for disruptive appears as “showing approval; original and new in a way that causes change.” But, doesn’t the English language have words for that already? Examples: innovative, radical, revolutionary.
macmillan-dictionary-disruptiveIt is clear that we can arrive at more intelligible options that are not buzzwords. Buzzwords can be part of an argot (casual vocabulary) or jargon (professional vocabulary). They aren’t just communicating a message (“this new memory chip is revolutionary!”) but also a philosophy. Let’s remember, however, that a company’s or manufacturer’s philosophy (so enshrined in their Mission and Vision statements) mask the reasons why the consumer should buy their products.

One of the features of a translation is communication, but it is hardly its only function. A translation can convey beauty (a poem), lifesaving information (hazardous material datasheet), instructions to achieve a task (repair of a water heater) and much more. To say that translators are communicators is as reductive and pedestrian as saying that a piano keyboard makes sounds.

A translator consulting Google for frequency of use of a certain neologism as his primary method of determining the right word in a translation is not doing his job. You, the end user, the project manager, the customer, the company owner, advertising manager or marketing copywriter, deserve better. After all, you also have access to a web browser and connection to the Internet. You could have arrived at the same conclusion by doing a search yourself. So, why are you paying that translator after all?

Being bilingually skilled to work with words is not enough. Pre-Internet, a rush search for an equivalent in a foreign language would involve consulting a dictionary. But a dictionary definition can only do so much. Reading actual usage of that word in the real world, in the here and now, requires a more empirical research method, and that necessitates reading relevant texts. For a translator, searching for the equivalent of our mot du jour, “disruptive,” should include not only reading the relevant English texts but also the French, Spanish or Chinese texts that are also relevant and specific.

A word about relevant texts: the translator will need to select the texts that show word usage with the least load of intentionality. Put it another way, a relevant text for our research purposes is any text that is not trying to sell you something (an idea or a product). With practice, a translator will learn to identify relevant texts and discard irrelevant ones. Now, back to being “disruptive.” As you may have surmised, the exposition of definitions, synonyms and arguments above is part of my own research of this word to better understand not just what meaning it carries but also how it (the word) interacts with other parts of speech, with other texts and with other meanings.

The previous paragraph may sound like a headache to the average person, but all those processes happen inside the head of a properly trained professional translator or terminologist. We are just seeing the product of those processes in this entry to illustrate how the complex may seem simple and quick, but only on the surface.

Any translator worth his salt will tell you that a proper translation will carry the original meanings over to the receiving language: your slogan will sound as peppy and impactful in French as it does in English; your technical descriptions will appear as clear and purposeful in the foreign language just like your technical writer or engineer made them in the original language. Your English advertisement will be as persuasive in Chinese. But let’s be careful: a translator is just the intermediary, the bridge between you and your end user. There is no need for the translator to adopt marketingspeak or advertising lingo. Yet that’s exactly what some translators, judging by what they write on blogs or industry publications, seem to have done with “disruptive.” They have become besotted with the promises behind that adjective, and that becomes a problem. Instead of being translators, they act like product evangelists (buzzword use totally intended). Like a faithful interpreter, a translator should act agnostic to the meaning or message he is carrying over for you to another language and culture.

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Filed under Buzzword, Diccionario Real Academia Española (DRAE), Fundéu BBVA, Neologism, Online dictionaries, Qualified translators, Research for translators, Research methods, Thesaurus, Word search

I’m not an entrepreneur and I don’t head a startup

I carry a love/hate relationship with networking events. Among the methods I have come to love is the 2-minute swap networking as carried out during the 2012 ATA Conference in San Diego last October. Dreading the worst —we introverts dislike gatherings with large groups of strangers— I sat in one of the long tables facing another colleague…one more stranger.

When the whistle blew, we acted as instructed: talk with your neighbor in front of you for 2 minutes, then stop and move to the next seat to your right. I didn’t need any prompting: just the thought of introducing myself and asking my colleague facing me what he or she did was enough to keep the ball rolling. Sometimes, 2 minutes were insufficient to wrap up an otherwise interesting conversation. Business cards and smiles were exchanged. The entire affair was over before you knew it.

I attended an annual business meeting/networking event at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History last Thursday (January 17), hosted by COSE (Coalition of Small Enterprises), an organization that connects its members with more than a dozen chambers of commerce. The business meeting highlights: a professionally made video and the awards ceremony. However, the networking that followed was not my cup of tea. I was looking to spend up to 3 hours with strangers. In this and other similar events, I noticed that, regardless of whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you will find that most people are already engaged in conversation by the time you approach them to strike up a discussion.

A solitary home office

A solitary home office

This is the Upper Midwest, after all. People are cordial, courteous and willing to meet you. But the format for this networking activity is all wrong. You can’t possibly network with even a 10% of all of the people there. I did, however, manage to encounter a fellow translator who lives in Vermillion, as well as representatives of a couple of ad agencies, with whom I discussed a bit of typography and graphic design topics briefly.

Another contact I made was a COSE staff member who is involved in the marketing committee. He mentioned that his committee is going to introduce new services in March 2013 for startups and entrepreneurs, all COSE members. After listening to him for a few minutes, I volunteered my thoughts about the words “startup” and “entrepreneur.”

-I think these words are being overused today. I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur or a startup, even though I have my own small corporation.

He considered my words carefully and went on to expand how COSE had thought about using a word other than startup to refer to small businesses, to avoid the former’s negative connotations. He added that COSE had started to use the word “solopreneur” (a cringeworthy term in my book) to replace “entrepreneur.”

First and foremost, marketing people are not etymologists or linguists, nor should they be required to be. But so-called ordinary words, such as business owner or company manager or even sole proprietor carry more proven weight than faddish words such as mompreneur, solopreneur or any other feeble attempt at me-too linguistic pioneering for marketing or sales purposes.

How do other business owners see a startup? An IT outfit? A young company? What about their view on an entrepreneur? In the eyes of a well-established business owner, does the word entrepreneur carry the cachet of motivation, creativity and inspiration…or a can-do attitude? The more we use an otherwise particular or special word, the soon it becomes stale and obsolete, yielding an anemic impact. Which brings us to a topic of import: writing. Say what you want about the printed media or the impending death of newspapers and magazines, but no amount of slick YouTube videos or well-crafted Facebook page likes will ever replace a well-written message. Even if that message is a one-word label that you choose to apply to yourself or your company.

We may think it’s all semantics, but words, the written word, is the second most important invention since the wheel. We live and die by the word.

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Filed under Branding, Buzzword, Etymology, Marketing, Networking, Public Relations