The 7 Iconic, Transparent, Empowering Business Buzzwords That Need To Die

Stop saying these things before my head explodes!


When I started writing a blog to support my book, Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle, I had an inkling that many of the words I loathed were common in the offices where I was working.

But this could be an illusion: Once we’re bothered by something, we tend to notice it more. So it could be that the business buzzwords that make me cranky are no more significant than the guy who bumps my chair when he walks past–which, on second thought, isn’t a big deal, he’s been doing it for years.

Not so, it seems.


I started to run quick statistical analyses of the published language when readers requested an investigation, and found that many idiotic, annoying, or just useless buzzwords and phrases really have infested our inboxes in the last 10 years. Some words are fun or informative. These words are not. If you find that these catchwords frequently litter your conversations or presentations, it’s probably time to consult a thesaurus. 

  • “Issue”
  • When did we stop having problems and decide to have “issues” instead? The ratio of problems to issues in our magazines and newspapers show that there are about three times as many issues per problem as there were 10 years ago. Are we really so fragile? After all, if we can’t call what’s happening to the economy at the moment a “problem,” we’re setting the bar pretty high for the problems of the future.

  • “Passion” 
    The CEO of a firm emailed me to ask why all his interviewees claimed to be “passionate about marketing” these days. A quick Google check on what people are claiming to be passionate about in the last 24 hours: secured loan leads; transformation; rubbish; logistics; plankton. The recruiter’s question: “Are you passionate about…?” is now just a test to see how well we fake it. At least “passionate about plankton” would make a good T-shirt.
  • “Unique” 
    As a Brit I can be proud that HMS Unique was, confusingly, built as one of 49 identical submarines. Don’t let anyone tell you that we didn’t ruin the language first. Yet, as I write, there have been 826 press releases claiming that something is “unique” in the last seven days. Everything, we must conclude, is now special in its own exquisite way.
  • “Iconic” 
    We’re supposed to find a person or thing desirable, but we don’t know why. Iconicness seems to be a 21st-century phenomenon: Since 2000, we’re about eight times as likely to find something “iconic” in the press. Two areas in which this growth rate has been twice as fast: accountancy and solid waste. You can’t make it up.
  • “Role” 
    Our parents had jobs or, if they were lucky, careers. We entertain ourselves by claiming we have roles, as if our work is a personal soap opera. During the long boom, the ratio of roles to jobs went from 10:1 to about 4:1. You will not be surprised to learn that, since 2007, this ratio has returned to pre-2001 levels.
  • “Transparency”
    Six times as popular in the business press as it was in 2002; about one in 40 press releases claim it. It’s taking over “honesty” and “integrity,” maybe because you can claim transparency without any suggestion you’re doing something that improves anyone’s life. Note: The glass industry uses “transparency” in marketing less than the average, but the audit industry uses it ten times as often. Draw your own conclusions.
  • “Empowerment” 
    Not a bad word in itself–but if I buy something from you, you are not “empowering” me. It’s a sneaky way of dodging what the wafflers call the brand promise: They didn’t say the jeans would make me a better person; their clothes just “empowered me” to lay claim to my own betterness. I get it: If my life is as crappy as it was before, it’s my fault. If it improves, all hail the denim.

Tim Phillips is a freelance journalist. He is the author of Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle, Knockoff, Fit to Bust and co-author of best selling Scoring Points, all published by Kogan Page. 

[Image: Flickr user Vu Bui]