Words come into and go out of fashion. Sometimes, a particular word will catch a wave of popularity and become overused to the point where it becomes essentially meaningless and is used primarily to show that the speaker is fashionable and up on the latest trends. Such words are buzzwords, and you often see them in business writing, as firms indicating through their language that they are on the cutting edge of their field by using cutting edge language. A good example of a buzzword is synergy. The word hit its peak of popularity in the early 1980s. It is still common, but perhaps not as overused as it once was.
Synergy is the cumulative effect of coordinated action by a number of independent factors. Anytime you have the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, you have synergy. It’s a modern word coined from Latin roots. The Oxford English Dictionary has one citation of synergy’s use from 1660, but this appears to be an outlier, and the use didn’t catch on back then. It was recoined in the mid-nineteenth century in medical jargon, where it was used to describe the effects of multiple organs working together. From an 1847 translation of Ernst Feuchtersleben’s The Principles of Medical Psychology:
The transition to the homogeneous is called irradiation (in motor nerves, synergy,—in sensitive, sympathy).
It took about a hundred years for the business world to become wise to the word, and synergy began appearing in business writing in the late 1950s. From Raymond Cattell’s 1957 Personality and Motivation Structure and Measurement:
Immediate synergy through group membership [...] expresses the energy going into the group life as a result of satisfaction with fellow members.
Synergy continued to be unremarkably used for several decades, until suddenly in the 1980s, for some reason or another, synergy became a business imperative. As The Economist put it in its 28 November 1981 issue:
Others, through mergers (eg, research houses into retail brokerage houses), have demonstrated that there is something to be said for synergy.
Suddenly, every company had to be exploiting the “synergistic effects” of something or other. The word appeared on just about every executive resume. Products named synergy hit the market. Companies even changed their names to incorporate the word.
Of course, in reality nothing had changed. Businesses have been “exploiting synergistic effects” for as long as there has been business. The word synergy became so overused that it became something of a joke. Since then, synergy has settled back into the frequency of use it had prior to the furor of the 1980s. It can again be used without triggering rolling eyes and sniggering, but one should be careful to not overuse it, or the synergistic effect of that overuse will once again become negative.
“synergy, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton