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Language like fashion: Is "innovation" going out of style?

Sep 14, 2015

Our hearts are in the right place when we use the word "innovation," but we may have ruined it for ourselves
Credit flickr user Missy Schmidt / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The Next Idea

It’s not too hard for many of us to think of words that are just used so much that instead of summoning up a powerful image, they trigger a bored eye roll.

One such word is actually a very big part of The Next Idea: “innovation.”

When used correctly, “innovation” means so much. For companies and universities, entrepreneurs and inventors, it means everything.

But the word is now so overused it tends to get lost in the white noise of corporate buzzwords.

Michigan Radio’s resident linguist Anne Curzan joins us today to talk about “innovation” and to tell us a bit about how a word loses its power.

A quick history lesson

Curzan tells us that the word comes from Latin, and has been a part of the English language for several hundred years. Both the noun “innovation” and the verb “innovate” appear in the mid-16th century.

“So it’s not new, but it is newly popular,” Curzan says.

Curzan’s research indicates that the word’s overuse began long before many of us started to get sick of it.

Words weaken sometimes when we use them a lot.

Both databases she referenced, Google Books and the Corpus of Historical American English, noted that, “in the 20th century we do see a dramatic rise in the use of the word.” The former showed the rise in the 1960s and ‘70s, whereas the latter placed it in the 1990s, according to Curzan.

She suggests the discrepancy could be an example of what linguists call the “recency illusion,” in which we believe a change in the language happened when we first noticed it, while in fact the change probably started taking place long before.

Why does it feel overused?

Curzan says there are two likely reasons we roll our eyes when we hear the word “innovation.”

The first is pretty easy to suss out: it really has been used a lot, and many of us are sick of hearing it.

“This is something that happens in language, is that words weaken sometimes when we use them a lot,” Curzan says.

The second reason is a little less apparent. She tells us that by and large, we expect too much when we hear the word, “innovation.”

“People are saying, ‘this thing’s innovative, this is an innovation,’ when it’s not even really new, it’s just kind of interesting,” she tells us.

Check the dictionary

It doesn't say it has to be radically new, it just says it has to be new.

Curzan throws her lot in with the folks who want the word “innovation” to mean something not just new, but new in a radical and game-changing way. Again, her research tells a different tale.

“As I looked at the history of the word, what it means, and actually what most standard dictionaries define it to mean, is just, ‘something that’s new an idea [or] method that’s new, or the introduction of something new,’” she says.

“It doesn’t say it has to be radically new, it just says it has to be new.”

Language like fashion

Curzan tells us that often times we will pick up words or phrases just because they’re used around us.

She cites John McWhorter’s comparison of language to fashion. You see someone wearing the newest style, and think maybe you should try it out yourself, “because that’s what everyone else is wearing.”

The same thing happens with language, she says, and whether or not you pick it up intentionally, the viral effect of a word sometimes compounds to a point where it loses its power entirely.

And, like fashion, once a word has peaked in popularity and started to lose its luster, Curzan says it’s not uncommon for it to fade from use.

As for “innovation,” Curzan tells us the word is unlikely to end up in the back of the vocabulary closet.

“I doubt innovation will fade. I think it will sit there meaning, ‘new things,’ but probably not ‘radically new’ unless you specify that this innovation is not just cutting edge, it’s disruptive and radical and otherwise breaking new ground.”

Anne Curzan is a University of Michigan English Professor and she co-hosts That’s What They Say here on Michigan Radio.

Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here.

-Ryan Grimes, Stateside