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Annoying buzzwords and their origins

By Tarli Cameron | February 9, 2022 | Word Geek

The origins of well-known buzzwords

Buzzwords – words or phrases that become popular and overused for a short period of time.

From irritants such as synergy to holistic views, most of us have been guilty of using them at some point in time. If not, we’ve certainly known a boss or colleague who used buzzwords that even David Brent would want to steer well clear of.

This week, Word Geek’s intrigue got the better of her, so she decided to deep dive (we had to do it) into the origins of four buzzwords that we all love to hate.



Words that are used to create a buzz and keep a hive thriving (just humour us). Love them or hate them, there is no avoiding buzzwords.

Buzzwords originated in 1946, when business students studying at Harvard University used certain language terms as a means to enable them to quickly recall items of importance. This helped them to gain better results from their studies.

These language terms were collated and later became what we label today as buzzwords.


Think outside the box

It’s thought that the lateral thinking exercise known as the Nine Dots Puzzle served as the inspiration for this well-used phrase. Popular in the 70s and the 80s, the Nine Dots Puzzle presented participants with a set of nine dots arranged in a 3 by 3 grid. The aim of the game was to connect all the dots, using four or fewer straight lines, without lifting a pen or pencil from the paper. Solving the puzzle was only possible by drawing the lines outside of the square area, or box, of the nine-dot array.


Ducks in a row

Ducks in a row is thought to have come from the popular game of bowling. Traditionally, bowling pins were shorter and wider than those we are used to playing with today, giving them the appearance and nickname of duck. Before the invention of automatic resetting machines, duck pins, as they were known, would be manually placed back in their places between each bowling round. Hence, having your ducks in a row would refer to having all of the bowling pins organised in their rows before the next pin was bowled down the lane.



Isn’t it great when you reach a milestone? The Romans thought so too, but for a different reason.

For some 2,000 years, stone pillars have helped us find our way around Britain and, for this, we have the Romans to thank. Roads built by the Romans had stone pillars called milestones which all had unique numbers and were set at one-mile intervals. This was to inform travellers of how far they’d travelled and how far they had to reach their destination. While our use of the word milestones is not as literal today, we still like reaching them.