A WORD IN THE HAND
Breaking rules and stuff: Behold the splendid disruptor
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Trends are a lot like diseases. They have an incubation period before erupting in unpredictable places, and often they die down in one spot before breaking out in another. Some people are immune to their effects. Others get sick to their stomachs.
Trendy words are no different from on-point handbags or spatulas. The latest buzzword is “disrupt”, except it’s not the absolute ultimate latest because four years ago the Observer’s Gatekeeper column predicted that “disruptor” would be one of the two most annoying buzzwords of 2014.(The other was “hacker”, used not in the computer sense but to describe someone who is astonishingly good at solving some really complex practical problem, such as how to hang your necklaces from separate hooks so the chains don’t get tangled. These feats of supernatural genius are called “life hacks”.)
Disrupt, erupt and rupture all come from the same Latin root rumpere – to break. The breaks associated with ruptures and eruptions (usually involving soft membranes or the earth’s crust) are somewhat unpleasant, but “break” is a favourite word among those who brand themselves disruptors. They break with convention, break rules and break boundaries and then everyone says how splendid they are.
Before disruptors came along, “curator” was a popular label for anyone who told you what to wear, what to read or what to feed your hedgehog. The Awl website, which had as its motto “Be Less Stupid”, gave us what is still the best comment on curators in its 2012 post entitled: You Are Not a Curator, You Are Actually Just a Filthy Blogger.Forgive the momentary disruption. Let us return to disrupt. In 2013, Forbes magazine’s Caroline Howard attempted to explain the difference between disruption and innovation. “Disruptors are innovators, but not all innovators are disruptors,” she wrote. “Disruption takes a left turn by literally uprooting and changing how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day.”I can’t be sure if that was a useful explanation because I’m still trying not to picture a thought being literally uprooted from my mind. Ouch.Forbes revisited disruption in 2016, this time asking whether the word had achieved full-fledged in-vogue status. Daniel Newman examined “disruptive innovation” in the corporate world, saying that “while it’s now a buzzworthy-term, most of us use it without knowing what exactly it means ... We often fall into the trap of using the word ‘disruption’ to describe any movement that shakes up an industry, but this definition is far too broad.”
Newman went on to give some business examples of what actual disruption actually is. These were not entirely satisfying or conclusive, to my mind, but at least he didn’t yank any thoughts out by their tender roots.The US might be the birthplace of disruption, but epidemics cannot be contained in an age of global travel. The bug spread to Australia, where in July 2017 News.com.au explained to its audience that “positive disruption is corporate terminology for changing things up and solving problems from a new perspective”. Like finding a new way to hang your necklaces so that the chains don’t get tangled.
The Ozzies, however, gave disruption an interesting twist. The same news story quoted Juanita Wheeler, organiser of TEDxBrisbane, who said people who read are the most disruptive of disruptors, because “the more widely you read, the more inquisitive and creative your ideas become”.
Consider this a warning to be more careful of readers. If you see someone with their nose in a book, give them a wide berth. At the mere turn of a page they might suddenly be disrupting all over the place.