Word to My PR Homies: The Jolie O’Dell Non-Exhaustive List of Meaningless Words



You use them. We (journalists, VCs, and users) hate them.

Back in the day, George Orwell wrote a beautiful, enlightening essay on the English language and how its missuse irked him to no end. Among his pet peeves were bad metaphors, pretentious language, verbal false limbs (too many syllables!), and most of all, meaningless words. Or, as we now call them, buzzwords.

Words like “romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality,” as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader… If words like “black” and “white” were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word “Fascism” has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words “democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice” have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like “democracy”, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way… Statements like “Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution,” are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

I added the emphasis to point out that there are certain words in our community that stand for concepts universally accepted as good – or, in the parlance of our time, hot shit. Eight times out of 10, those words and phrases are slapped into an elevator pitch with little regard for whether or not they’re applicable and equally little respect for the intelligence of the reader.

Another problem with overused and meaningless buzzwords is that readers come across them so often that the words become skim-able and ultimately ignorable. This evening, I read an entire paragraph twice and still had no idea what the writer, a PR flak, was trying to convey. The sentences were so jammed with buzzwords that they literally had almost no meaning whatsoever. Once my brain’s Akismet-like filtration system had blocked all the buzz, there was practically no real content left.

Word to My PR Homies #10: Eliminate meaningless words.

Since I’m sensible to the fact that you may have, in fact, been drinking your own Kool Aid and don’t know a buzzword from your founder’s butt, allow me to give you a brief and non-exhaustive list of words to avoid at all costs.

Use one of them if it’s absolutely necessary and applicable. If you use two, you’re at risk. If you use three, you’re full of it. If you use four, it’s getting forwarded to the whole team, and we will mock you and never, ever write about your startup. Of course, if you want to be the butt of the next tech conference drinking game, that’s up to you.

I do this because I love you, remember that. Bonus points to commenters referencing the post image.

3g, 4g, any “g”
augmented reality/AR
best-of-breed, best-in-class
bleeding edge
cloud, the
cutting edge
Fortune 500/100
long tail
sentiment/sentiment analysis
social/social media

Add yours in the comments. The List will be updated accordingly.

UPDATED: For the haters, let’s try a before and after, a la the Orwell essay.

“Our startup, a leader in mobile application development, is announcing the launch of a revolutionary augmented reality solution that will enable the discovery of location-based social streams in real-time.”

Ok, does anyone even know what that means? I seriously read shit like that every day. Let’s rewrite:

“We made a mobile app that shows you who is tweeting or posting pictures and videos around you.”

I ask you – which one sounds more revolutionary to you?

17 thoughts on “Word to My PR Homies: The Jolie O’Dell Non-Exhaustive List of Meaningless Words

  1. The pic is from My Fair Lady. Can’t tell if it’s before or after the song On The Street Where You Live.

    As for the post, if I read that stuff all day I’d go nuts. Then again, think of how bored you’d be reading the same Press Release (your second example) 50 times a day, which would surely be the case without those words, wouldn’t it?

    With all the weasel words there must be some variety, and some humor, right? Maybe you can also judge the company by whether they can spell.

  2. Thanks! By the time I read all of this little series of yours I’ll be writing our releases all by myself.

    This is really helpful because it forces me to cut to the chase and find a way to say things clearly. Often I find myself having the same problem when writing copy (for our site, or for a video I’m currently working on).

    When I come back after a day or two to edit it, I end up cutting out most of the fluff. And the end result is usually much better.

    I don’t think I could beat your examples, though.

    • Thanks so much! I appreciate the compliment.

      Concise verbiage, while not always an area of strength for me, is something I love, both as a writer and as a reader. Brevity and power have a proportional relationship, I think.

  3. The way I’ve found to avoid buzzwords, both from your list and others, is to sit down and write my press release/article/what have you without worrying about them. A few hours later, I go back to the piece I’m working on and start editing. When I see how annoying (and often, redundant) I sound, I start taking the offending buzzwords out and replacing them with better words.

    It’s simple…And more people should write this way instead of blindly writing things and shipping them off. That’s how I feel, anyway.

    Tessa Carroll
    VBP OutSourcing

    • Absolutely! I can’t think of a piece that doesn’t deserve a little after-the-face finessing, whether it’s journalism, PR, literary fiction, or a simple personal letter. Looking at your own work from another’s perspective – or even calling in a fresh set of eyes – does everyone a service in the end.

  4. Great read!

    A couple of words/prases I have noticed:
    “This product currently enables Web 2.0 standards and is poised for Web 3.0”
    “location centric”
    “instant ROI”

  5. When you do write a release, there is a response but it’s not like emailing someone and getting an immediate reply, is it?

    What i’m getting at is that it can be great fun to assiduously abstain from any language familiar to a business-school graduate steeped in management theory and marketing while corresponding via email–i get answers along the lines of, “what kind of a response is that?” and “I don’t appreciate your sarcasm” or my favorite, “i’m calling your manager/i’m suing your ass.”

  6. I’m positive that the first half of this piece was awesome and I’m pretty sure the second half was too. The problem was, after I got to the part where you said, “in the parlance of our time,” I was distracted thinking about how I want to watch The Big Lebowski again soon. And Dude… “meaningless” is not the preferred nomenclature. Meaning-impaired.

  7. Thanks for saying it!

    I’m sick and tired of sitting through presentations in which “clever looking people” have over-salted their talks with extra helpings of buzzwords. I guess most do it to make an impression, but if after your talk I’m none smarter than I was before you started talking, then is that really the impression you wanted me to have?


  8. Thank you sooo much for writing these kick-ass posts about how to pitch to journalists. I’m venturing out on my own in PR and I really want to get things right- this is perfect. Thanks!

    The picture is a still from “My Fair Lady” …based on the play Pygmalion

    “the rain in Spain, falls mainly on the plain”


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