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Friday glass of whine: Pardon the disruption but can I have that word back?

by Dave Hannon

June 3, 2011

By Dave Hannon


I have been around the IT industry long enough to have seen a myriad of buzzwords come and go (and sometimes even come back again). Every industry has them, but IT just seems to become enamored with certain phrases. I remember when “marketplaces” swept the IT industry (they were web sites). I’ve watched “software” become “solutions” and I sat idly by while “companies” grew into “enterprises” overnight.

I remember a wildly frustrated colleague becoming fed up with the outright abuse of the word “system” in the magazine we worked on. “Everything is a system today!” she shouted, picking up a pen. “This isn’t a pen anymore – it’s a … a writing system!” (Two minutes later our manager poked her head in and asked my colleague to print out an article for her because her “system was down.” I honestly thought my co-worker’s hair was going to burst into flames as she walked to the printer.)

I understand why this happens, I just don’t like it. I know marketers, consultants, and even writers often feel the need to coin a new phrase or jump on the latest linguistic bandwagon to sound more “innovative.” (I have completely lost track of what innovative means, by the way). And maybe it is the view from up here on my editorial high horse clouding things, but it truly annoys me when a buzzword misrepresents a word's actual meaning.

The latest lexical hijacking that has me flustered is the IT industry’s blatant plundering of the word “disrupt” in its various forms (disruption, disruptive, etc.). According to at least one dictionary disrupt is a verb that means “to break apart or rupture” or “to throw into disorder.” Its synonyms include “dismember,” “disintegrate,” and “fracture.”

In other words, it’s bad. It’s not good. I’ve had a couple fractures — they hurt. And I sure don’t want to have anything rupture or be dismembered!  

So why is everyone using “disruptive” to describe creative new technologies, which I assume are positive? According to Wikipedia (the ultimate source for all things bandwagon), “disruptive technology” describes “innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect.” It’s a pleasant surprise. It’s a new direction.

According to another source: “A disruptive technology is one which drives major change in business processes or revenue streams, consumer behavior or spending, or IT industry dynamics.”

I see absolutely no mention of dismemberment or disorder. Shouldn’t a “disruptive technology” be, perhaps, a new weapon that causes chaos and mayhem? No, according to all of the sources I checked, a disruptive technology is now a change-driver.

This basically assigns a completely new meaning to the word. Can you do that? Is this some kind of global game of Mad Libs that I’m not in on? Why disruptive to describe new technologies? Why not another adjective? Why not “emollient” or “ingracious”?

“An ingracious technology is one which drives major change..” Yeah, that doesn’t sound right either, but it may be more appropriate in that sentence than disruptive.

I call on all involved in the IT industry/space/market/function to boycott the term disruptive in describing new technology and replace it with “ingracious” in all references. Immediately. Let’s take this one back. Let’s reclaim disruptive and put it back in its rightful place next to dismember and fracture. Who’s with me?  

Now, if you’ll pardon the disruption, I have to go feed my high horse. He gets hungry this time of the day.

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Gary Byrne

9/25/2013 8:55:34 PM


You've got to blame Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen for the term disruptive technology. IT executives do have their own parlance, but this term lies on the side of business. We should make a scorecard of terms created by business execs and those created by IT execs. By the way, who is responsible for coining the term cloud computing?

Ketan Ganatra

9/25/2013 8:55:34 PM

Hello Dave:

A very disruptive blog, indeed!

I share your grief when people start to use the word 'sideways'. But I don't get upset anymore. Here is why.

Purpose of language is to describe thought process. Merriam-Webster adds dozens of new words to their lexicon every year to "catch-up" the dictionary with "current use of language". As the society changes, it also influences the medium of communication it uses.

However, that does not give you rights to hijack a word and re-fashion it to suite your purpose.

How do you know if what seems to be an oddity at first sight is beginning of a new trend or just a temporary display of bravado? I let the masses decide. If the word survives for a year, I jump on the bandwagon.

There is nothing 'frame' about 'mainframes'. Yet, there is nothing more 'mainframe' than a 'mainframe'.

Martin English

9/25/2013 8:55:34 PM

"It's a perfectly cromulent word" - Obligatory Simpson's Reference