The word on buzzwords

August 28, 1996|By Martha Groves | Martha Groves,LOS ANGELES TIMES

When does a buzzword become legitimate?

Merriam-Webster Inc., publisher of Webster's dictionaries, moves at a less than scintillating pace when it comes to including faddish terms.

The Springfield, Mass., company's collegiate dictionary only recently installed definitions for "greenmail," "golden parachute" and "bean counter" -- favorites from the 1980s, the merger-studded Decade of Greed.

Before Merriam-Webster adopts a term, it must find "citations from a lot of different sources illustrating a breadth of use over a period of a few years to indicate longevity," says associate editor Paul Cappellano. Asked about "re-engineering," he says the word now exists in the "self-explanatory 're' list" in the 10th edition of the collegiate dictionary, edited in the early '90s. But he agreed that, given its ubiquitousness in the business world, "that's really not where it belongs." He vowed to have it redefined for the next edition -- in about five years.

That bugaboo "downsizing" had its germ in a term from the '70s oil crises -- when General Motors Corp. began talking about scaling down the size of its cars to make them more fuel efficient.

"Outsourcing" moved into the business vernacular after popping up seemingly from out of nowhere. The first citation has been pinpointed in a 1982 Fortune magazine, but the word made its official debut in the 1986 addenda to the unabridged Webster's Third New International Dictionary. Webster's defined it as a noun meaning "the procurement by a corporation from outside and especially foreign or nonunion suppliers of parts it formerly manufactured."

The term is now one of the hottest of the hot and is widely used -- as a noun or a verb -- to describe the purchase by companies jTC in any industry of goods or services from outside vendors.

Few of these buzzwords represent spanking-new thinking. Robert Kreitner, who teaches management at Arizona State University, traces "re-engineering" to the 1970s-vintage "job redesign." "TQM," or "total quality management," has its roots in a 1951 book "Total Quality Control," by Armand Feigenbaum, then a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Even executives can get plenty sick of buzzwords. A Denver executive told headhunter Gary Kaplan to put the kibosh on any job candidates who favored a certain buzzword. "I'm gonna kill the next person who uses the word 'culture' to define this place," he growled.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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