Neoliberalism and neoliberal ideology has only recently begun to gain attention within applied linguistics. This paper seeks to contribute to this development with a focus on neoliberal keywords in official texts. The ideological content of these keywords can best be understood within the political project of neoliberalism and within the political economy of contemporary capitalism. Studies which have highlighted the marketization of institutional discourse have analysed this phenomenon from a discourse-based perspective, rather than seeing neoliberal ideology in language as a contradictory manifestation of wider social relations in periods of social crises. The appearance of ideology in language, this paper holds, is unstable, unfinished, unpredictable and dependent for meaning on what Dell Hymes characterised as the “persistent” social context. The ideology of neoliberalism, for all its apparent hegemony, is not guaranteed full consent, and this applies also to its presence in language. The question of social agency is crucial to understanding the social dynamic and unpredictability of ideology in language, both in terms of who produces neoliberal keywords and how they are received and understood. This paper argues that international think tanks, articulating the interests of capital, act as powerful keyword standardisers and their influence will be examined in the production of texts in the Irish university context. However, neoliberal keywords, in certain conjunctures, will also be contested, as will be shown. The paper concludes that applied linguistics is uniquely placed to both critique and challenge neoliberal keywords in the university and that such a challenge has the potential to find wider political resonance as governments, amid continuing economic recession, recharge the ideology of neoliberalism.