‘Academic’ Language Abuse

Trying too hard to sound smart sounds silly

Most words on this list are “real” and serve a purpose, but for some reason they ended up trendy in academic journals. After a word is trendy it becomes an academic buzzword, expected in the texts of some disciplines. The result is academic writing descending into an unintended parody of itself. There is a reason the New York Times mocks the Modern Language Association conference paper titles: it is easy humor.

academese - An artificial form of communication commonly used in institutes of higher education designed to make small, irrelevant ideas appear important and original. Proficiency in academese is achieved when you begin inventing your own words and no one can understand what you are writing.

Academic writing can be interesting and informative, but it can also sound artificial, inflated, and absurd. The key is to know when and how to use these terms. Restraint helps you avoid losing readers.

We know academics claim they need new words and phrases to define new concepts. We can debate the “newness” of most of these concepts, but it's our experience that the academic publishing industry needs to be fed new versions of old ideas to survive. (The journal industry is the sad result of “publish or perish” tenure logic.) When you need new words what generally results are tortured versions of existing words. Some examples of the lexical torture make us cringe.

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I] [J] [K] [L] [M]
[N] [O] [P] [Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y] [Z]

- A -

absquatulate - (misused) flee or leave. Dictators absquatulate to another country. Use flee or another common term. The misuse we’ve encountered, meant as humor, is that an elected official having lost office does not absquatulate. Such a use is not effective hyperbole, because we doubt most people know the term.

academicize - to turn into an academic topic or discipline. Why not state that you want to study something?

- B -

belongingness - (buzzword) (1) how well an item fits within a larger grouping. (2) how a person perceives his or her place within a group.

- C -

commodification - (misued, buzzword) in business, a commodified product or service is so widely available that pricing is difficult to maintain. When too many similar products are on the market, commodification occurs. Academics don’t limit themselves to clear meanings. Commodification has been appropriated to mean cheapen.

David Foster Wallace

... I regard Academic English not as a dialectal variation but as a grotesque debasement of Standard Written English, and loathe it even more than the stilted incoherences of Presidental English... or the mangled pieties of BusinessSpeak ... and in support of this utter contempt and intolerance I cite no less an authority than Mr. G. Orwell, who 50 years ago had Academic English pegged as a "mixture of vaguemess and sheer incompetence" in which "it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning."

Harper’s Magazine, April 2001

community - (buzzword) any group, even if there seems to be limited connections among members. This is a buzzword in the humanities, rendered meaningless via overuse. If you thought you knew what a community was, you haven’t read an academic paper. Entire books have been written trying to define community.

“Community is descriptive and prescriptive, local and global, spatially bound or boundaryless, public or private, organic or mechanical, intentional or accidental, purposive or aimless, oppressive or liberating, functional or dysfunctional…” (Fernback 2007)

Clear English:

Community means too many things.

concretizing - (1) to give an example. (2) to convert a plan into actions. People understand giving a “concrete example,” but simplify to “example” in most cases.

conflict transformation - (1) to end a conflict. (2) to change a conflict from physical to intellectual… though most physical conflicts begin with differences in thought.

conflictual - having to do with conflict. This word could be confused with others because it is uncommon.

counter-hegemonic - (buzzword) challenging norms or authority. see hegemony

counterpublics - any group opposed to dominant ideas or norms. In academia, counterpublic generally applies to “left-leaning” groups with “social justice” agendas.

- D -

deconstruction / deconstructing - (misused, buzzword) traditionally, deconstruction is an approach to philosophy. Academics appropriate terms from other disciplines, sometimes with odd results. Unfortunately, everything is now “deconstructed” by humanities professors. Understand a term before using it.

delegitimated - use delegitimize in most cases.

discourse community - (buzzword) in composition and rhetoric, this phrase is applied to any group communicating internally. We would use this phrase only to describe groups of academics, for clarity. Unfortunately, this can be every “community” the humanities have defined. see community

discursive - (misused) (1) based on reason rather than intuition. (2) rambling, digressive, wandering from one topic to another. Misused as a synonym for explanatory.

discursive strategy - how one writes or speaks. This is a fine phrase, when used sparingly.

“He employed an unconscious discursive strategy when conducting public discourse.”

Clear English:

He used proper English when delivering a public speech.

disempowering - (buzzword) (1) oppressing, dominating. (2) anything that reduces one’s standing. (3) making dependent on others for success or survival. We suggest rewriting any sentence with this buzzword to clarify what is being done and to whom.

- E -

enculturation / enculturalization - the slow acquisition of the traits of one culture by another. The term enculturation is misued to imply forcing one culture’s norms upon another culture. Enculturation leads to hegemony in critical theory. These terms are associated with Western Marxism.

essentialized / essentializing -

existential - (misused, buzzword) dealing with the nature of humanity, especially matters of free will and self-determination within an apparently absurd universe. Overused in both academic and popular writing. As with deconstruction, philosophical terms resist simple definitions.

extra-institutional - (buzzword) beyond the “official” campus realm.

- F -

feministing - to actively use a situation to promote the cause of feminism.

- G -

global sexualities - univeral “truths” about sexuality and gender.

glocalization - the desire to think of global concerns in terms of familiar, local norms. Supposedly a term from Japanese marketing texts, now used in sociology. We cannot even label this a buzzword.

- H -

hegemony - (buzzword) to have power or domination over others in a culture. Why does this always apply to the “Western hegemony” and not Islamic hegemony in the Middle East? Chinese hegemony? There is always a dominant power, therefore always a hegemony.

heterodoxy - (misused) heretical, skeptic, departing from the usual beliefs. The horrendous misuse we’ve encountered was intended to mean “hetero-orthodoxy,” as in heterosexuals dominating the world. Political correctness permits this claim against Western culture, but we would at least like to see the correct term used.

heterogeneity -

heteronormative / heteronormativity -

- I -

informed by -

intellectualize -

interactiveness -

interdisciplinary - see transdisciplinary

intergenerational - (misused) used properly, this means between generations or connecting generations. Unfortunately, we have read this misused to mean skipping a generation.

intertextuality -

- J -

- K -

- L -

legitimation -

- M -

meme - (buzzword, misused) technically, a meme is a norm that is passed among members of a community, regardless of species, by a non-biological means. It is not an email that spreads virally. Memes are imitation, such as the rich wearing jeans, which were at one time a symbol of the working class.

metageography - the “culturally accepted” misrepresentations of abstract territories. In fiction, creating a parallel world. In composition studies, diagramming concepts, such as the use of programming flowcharts or network diagrams.

metonym -

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I]
[J] [K] [L] [M] [N] [O] [P] [Q] [R]
[S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y] [Z]
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- N -

- O -

overdetermined - (misused)

- P -

paradigm / preparadigm -

pedagogy - (misused) the science and art of teaching. The misuses we have encountered include “teaching pedagogy” and “the pedagogy of teaching.” The first is correct if one is teaching about teaching, but usually it appears in sentences such as this from a journal article:

Silly example: The teaching pedagogies explored in this article represent best practices in second languages classrooms. The pedagogical implications of the strategies discussed should influence teaching approaches across the language arts.

The authors of this paper should have written, “The pedagogies explored…” and the second sentence is an example of trying too hard to sound authoritative.

performativity -

polysemous - a fancy way of saying a word or phrase has several meanings.

positivism -

postcolonial - (buzzword)

postmodern - (buzzword) seldom used with clarity, now meaningless. Suffers the same fate as “existential angst.”

post-postmodern - We are not sure what was meant by this, but we have seen this in print.

prediscursive -

prescientific -

problematize / problematization / problemize -

public - sometimes used superfluously in academic phrases. Example: public culture (as if culture isn’t public).

- Q -

queer [quare | kuaer] theory -

- R -

reappropriate / reappropriations -

reasonableness -

reconceptualize / reconceptualizationing - among the many ways of saying “rethink” in academic papers, reconceptualizationing might be the longest. Some advice: Any word with more than one prefix and more than one suffix is not a common word.

rearchitect / repurpose / reimagine / rethink / reimaginings -

- S -

social construction - (buzzword)

socio-emotional -

structuralist / structuration -

symbolic interactionism - an academic way to state that the mind and body each have an effect on each other. Credit (blame) the Chicago School of Interactionists for this phrase.

symbolization -

- T -

technologizing - to make something natural seem technical or mechanical.

territorialization - (1) staking a claim on a concept or field of study. (2) thinking of a space, real or virtual, in terms of a territory to settle.

transdisciplinary - see interdisciplinary

transformative -

transgressive -

transnational - across national borders or global. Be more specific and use common terms: use “global” or “multinational” when possible.

- U -

unproblematizes - (buzzword) explains.

- V -

- W -

webify / Webify - (buzzword) to find connections between concepts. The capitalized version apparently refers to making conceptual connections online, using the World Wide Web. Other texts use the term to mean Web-ready content.

- X -

- Y -

- Z -

zeugma - (misused) from grammar, a zeugma is when one word modifies two others, often in two different meanings. We have seen the term misused to mean a complex situtation, with both good and bad potentials. A proper example is:

Both his stock holdings and his yacht sank in the same horrible week.


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Writer: S. D. Schnelbach;
C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 21-Oct-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach