Corona speak: Buzzwords flying thick and fast

By Nick Foley | 9 July 2020
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Nick Foley is Landor’s VP APAC

2020 has not been the year any of us were expecting owing to the disruption brought about by COVID-19. Zoom meetings, remote working and shoestring budgets have become side effects of the rapid onset of this global pandemic. So too, has been an entire new lexicon of buzzwords inspired by the virus itself.

Buzzwords often start out with some semblance of intelligence. Think, "We’re not trying to boil the ocean". I remember the first time I heard this curious expression. It made me stop and consider the context in which it was being used.

The problem is such buzzwords can gather an almost instantaneous following which, more often than not, leads to unnecessary usage and rapid wear out.

Much of this over-use is typically due to the inappropriate application of a buzzword in a botched attempt to feign intelligence.

It wasn’t long after the country went into lockdown that the COVID buzzwords started flying thick and fast. "Uncertain times" quickly pervaded industry emails as did "uncharted waters".

Indeed, those with a real panache for buzzwords swiftly mastered the art of commencing an email, or a meeting, with "in these uncertain times…" before closing the very same email with "as we navigate these uncharted waters, together".

Whilst many buzzwords have caught on (more on these soon) some attempts to add to the humdrum of corona-speak have failed. If you cast your mind back to mid-March, when all of us were glued to our screens watching late night press conferences by the prime minister, the chief medical officer and the treasurer, there seemed to be one expression just begging to make it into the dizzy heights of COVID buzzword bingo. "Snapback." Remember that? Sadly, for Scomo and J-Fry, it never caught on.

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the corona virus terminology is this one,"We’re living in unprecedented times". This particular turn of phrase has caught on quickly and is a clear fave for those seeking some sort of alternative for "uncertain times" or "uncharted waters". What distinguishes it from the other two "un" buzzwords is that it is utterly illogical.

A quick check of other pandemics – yes, I know, believe it or not the world has faced such catastrophes before – makes for some interesting reading. About 100 years ago the world was grappling with the Spanish Flu, which killed approximately 3% of the global population. In percentage terms that was considerably more than what we face today with the current pandemic.

You don’t have to go back that much further in the history books to find that the "black death" had an even more devastating impact by killing somewhere between a quarter and a half of the world’s population. With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why I’m more than a tad bemused when hearing people pepper a meeting with "we’re living in an unprecedented times".

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some expressions that universally capture this moment in time.

"You’re on mute", "Can you see me" and "I’m just going to dial back in" are all terms we hear frequently as we go about our working lives in these days of isolation. In the same way that in five years from now the sound of a Teams ringtone will catapult us back to these repetitive days of COVID-19, so too will expressions like "I’m having issues with my wifi". And, it’s not all bad news for everyone. Personally, I can’t think of a time when there has been so much interest and discussion in the NBN. Actually, I can’t think of a time when there has been any interest in the NBN.

Given the grim news in Victoria, with many of the state’s inhabitants having to go back into lockdown, it’s unlikely we will see the cessation of COVID buzzwords anytime soon.

So, strap yourselves in for plenty more riveting dialogue in the months ahead. Although, in the onset of a second wave one does have to question one’s ability to pivot. After having "pivoted" from the pre-COVID normal to the COVID "new normal", to then have to perform yet another "pivot", presumably to a post-COVID "less normal-normal", it’s easy to see why the use of "pivot" is creating such ambiguity and has well and truly passed its use-by date.

As with all management-speak, be mindful of all the default expressions that have come into being since this pandemic took hold. At best, it can make you blend in with all those who wouldn’t know an original thought if they tripped over one and at worst you can be seen through a disingenuous lens.

"Now, more than ever" we need to resist the many COVID clichés doing the rounds and engage in a more meaningful dialogue. Because, after all, "we’re all in this together".

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