Caught in a webinar

Posted by on October 24, 2011

Many neologisms come to us from science and technology, where perpetual cycles of discoveries and developments create a constant need for new terminology. I examined one of them, the familiar blog, a few weeks ago, after several Macmillan Dictionary Blog contributors selected it as their favourite “online English” word.

Another one worth a closer look is webinar. Like blog, it is a blend or portmanteau word, though their common constituent, web, has been retained more explicitly in webinar. (It’s easy to forget or overlook the fact that blog comes from web + log.) The second part of webinar derives from seminar. Conduct or participate in one of these over the web, and there’s your webinar.

Even as new blends go, the word has been divisive. After entering the vocabulary, it spread quickly, appearing in Lake Superior State University’s “List of Banished Words” in 2005. Yet some people embraced it with little or no fuss, presumably in some cases because they give webinars or take part in them, so they have inevitably become accustomed to hearing and using the word.

Bryan Garner, a prescriptivist who says he is “often inclined to object to linguistic ‘innovations’”, finds webinar fine and handy. (He calls blog “perhaps the ugliest neologism of the last century”, so webinar gets off very lightly by comparison.) Others feel that it’s awkward and ill-sounding. In a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s language blog, Lingua Franca, Geoffrey Pullum – a descriptivist “not normally given to word rage” – describes webinar as awful, misbegotten, and repellent.

Wandering around the web, we find many who share his aversion: people complain that webinar “needs to die”, that it “should be banished on pain of death”, and that they “hate it and everything it represents about life, work and the universe”. Webinar might not win any word beauty awards, but if it is found useful enough for long enough, it will survive no matter how malformed some people consider it.

New words, especially voguish portmanteaus, tend to push people’s buttons, often for reasons that are difficult to discern – a gut reaction that just sticks. If you have reason to use webinar but you really can’t stomach it, you can always take advantage of the richness of synonymy in English by falling back on web seminar, online seminar, web conference, and so on. It’s worth the extra syllables if it keeps your blood pressure down.

What’s your opinion of webinar? Is it a perfectly serviceable coinage, or a foul and faddish term that you hope will fade?

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Comments (13)
  • There’s no reason webinar is worse than blog, except one. It’s ugly. None of the letters seem to follow each other naturally. While it’s almost impossible to say “weblog” without shortening it to “blog”, webinar is vile and unnecessary. Sometimes, aesthetics override everything else.

    Also, for reasons I can’t quite explain, every time it appears it makes the writer look like the kind of knob who goes around leveraging solutions or delivering excellence. They should either be shunned or horsewhipped on the steps of their club.

    Posted by Patrick Neylan on 24th October, 2011
  • We’re about to start a series of webinars… I shall forward this link and raise the danger of horsewhipping!

    Posted by Cathy Relf on 24th October, 2011
  • Patrick: Leveraging is a word that often invites ridicule, but I cannot condone horsewhipping or any other form of violence on its account. The ugliness of a word, like the beauty of another, is to a significant degree subjective and dependent on context: one generation’s barbarism is sometimes the next’s everyday phrase. Given the utility of webinar, I think it makes sense to give it a chance.

    Cathy: Thank you! It’s best to be prepared for these possibilities. Good luck with your series.

    Posted by Stan on 24th October, 2011
  • I’m going to fess up and tell you that when I won a (sweet) Macmillan dictionary, I should have been working on a webinar because that was my job at the time. I’m no longer a webinar producer (for reasons other than reading this blog at work), so my use of the term has gone down. I can’t say I ever minded it, though. Certainly not as much as I minded the work that went into producing them.

    I’d say the biggest problem is having to explain it to people whenever you use it. Every time I’m going through the explanation, I always think, “Why didn’t I just say web seminar?” Webinar saves one syllable, but makes you use another ten to explain it. One step forward, ten steps back…

    Posted by Joe McVeigh on 25th October, 2011
  • Shoot, I forgot to link to that competition and that awesome business lingo letter you wrote, Stan.

    Fixed!

    Posted by Joe McVeigh on 25th October, 2011
  • Thanks, Joe! I’m delighted to hear you’ve been enjoying the dictionary, and that your original attempt to win it was not the reason you’re no longer a webinar producer. Your report on using the word is interesting: it’s obviously still too new for a lot of people. Whether it will still require regular explanation in ten or fifteen years’ time remains to be seen; maybe after an initial flurry of activity, it will give way to longer forms again.

    Posted by Stan on 25th October, 2011
  • I think it’s a nasty word. I would rather call it a webture linking web and lecture.

    Posted by Caz Repton on 25th October, 2011
  • One way of transliterating this horrid word into Russian is уебинар, a word so ugly I will hardly ever force myself to pronounce outside a locker room.

    Posted by George B. on 26th October, 2011
  • George B.: I can’t speak to the Russian translation, but one way of tranliterating the word into Finnish would be webinaari. The /w/, however, would be said like a /v/, giving it a slightly sinister sound to my ears – like an awfully named trap for Spider-man.

    Stan: Definitely enjoying the Macmillan dictionary. Obviously I can’t predict how common webinar will become, I can say that’s it’s at least partly dependent on how common webinars themselves become. I’m guessing the popularity of blog had something to do with the popularity of blogs (and also blogger.com).

    Posted by Joe McVeigh on 26th October, 2011
  • Michael Hoey’s Lexical Priming theory predicts that our response to a word may be coloured by the circumstances in which we first heard it, the kind of person who said it etc: this ‘primes’ us to think of it in a particular way. About 20 years ago when i worked for a multinational publisher (not Macmillan), we managers were taken off to a hotel for a training day. The (no doubt highly paid) trainer struck me as patronising, and his advice was superficial and obvious. He kept using the word ‘stakeholder’, which I had never heard before. To this day, I can’t hear this word without suspecting that the speaker is what Patrick Neylan called (in relation to ‘webinar’) “the kind of knob who goes around leveraging solutions or delivering excellence”. Does anyone else have words that produce this sort of response?

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 26th October, 2011
  • Caz: Webture is an interesting blend, but to me it’s more ambiguous than webinar. Unless the context were very clear, people might think it means “web culture”.

    George: Thank you for sharing that.

    Joe: Yes, I agree: the prospects for webinar are tied, to some extent, with the prospects for webinars themselves.

    Michael: That’s a good question. None come to mind, but I’ll think about it. Stakeholders has become a very popular word in Irish political discourse. Sometimes it’s used inclusively and with sincerity, and sometimes it’s just bandied about perfunctorily to pay lip service to concerned parties.

    Posted by Stan on 27th October, 2011
  • Michael: What immediately jumps to mind is the recent American Airlines commercial, where, in a series of different business situations, one character (the knob) kept saying “win-win” and the other character got steadily more annoyed. I’m sure if you google “American Airlines win win,” you’ll find the video. It jumps to mind because I have also been told to look for the “win-win” situation.

    I wonder if the use of these Business English terms (and the conpempt for them) has anything to do with how much someone likes their job (or how much they get paid to do it). Obviously it has something to do with how much someone likes the person that uses Business English lingo. But I’m sure those of us who “leverage solutions and deliver excellence” love saying that they “leverage solutions and deliver excellence.” To the rest of us, it sounds more like “we’re putting cover sheets on all our TPS reports. Didn’t you get the memo?”

    Posted by Joe McVeigh on 27th October, 2011
  • […] in “Caught in a webinar”, I briefly examine the recent portmanteau coinage webinar, asking whether it’s a useful and […]

    Posted by Neologisms, jargon, pragmatics and cant « Sentence first on 4th November, 2011
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