Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Medium Is Still the Message, Mostly

Canadian writer Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "The medium is the message" and introduced it in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It's a catchy phrase and has never lost currency in English, though it is less frequently encountered today than it was at its zenith in the years after the book was published.

The media via which we can transmit personal messages these days is vastly greater than it was in McLuhan's day. Back then — once you stepped away from face-to-face communication — it was telephone, telegraph, or words on paper from your typewriter, pen, or pencil.

These days, thanks to the internet and the telecom technologies that have enabled social media and services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SMS, and WhatsApp, we all have multiple and powerful media and platforms at our disposal. Both the volume and variety of messages we can send and receive are vastly greater than before; a quick reflection on your experience will surely confirm this.

We are bombarded with messages. Perhaps we also bombard others with them. I know I'm not alone in muting a number of Facebook "friends" because their lives seem to be centered on sending messages of very low information value, often couched in memes or clickbait. Supporting our instincts about this, Google NGrams shows that use of "send a message" (all tenses and forms) has increased nearly threefold since it began rising around 1980:

McLuhan's pithy apothegm is meant to suggest that that the form of a message strongly influences the ways in which that message will be perceived or interpreted, and that therefore we need to be mindful of the medium of a message every bit as much as we do of its content if our goal is for the recipient to arrive the intended meaning. Has language taken a subordinate role in this explosion of new media, given that we now have so many more metalinguistic ways to message directly than we used to?

Face-to-face communication has always had a rich assortment of metalinguistic components which aid both speaker and listener in arriving at meaning. Body language, gestures, facial expressions, and presence or absence of eye contact all contribute to the meaning of what we say in person and how others interpret it. Most of these features do not carry over well to real-time messaging that is not face to face.

The great success of emojis in personal communication is surely evidence that people appreciate the ability to either incorporate metalinguistic content into written messaging or even to replace linguistic communication altogether with something graphic. Emojis still have a somewhat informal flavor but I think the contexts in which they are considered out of place are ever diminishing. I use them and see them in business emails. I use them with my meditation teacher, an ordained monk for the last 50 years. He uses them back.

Though more informal yet and still more limited in the contexts in which they appear, simple memes that express emotional reactions are also an increasingly popular medium through which to express, much more forcefully, a feeling that might take various linguistic formulations. For example, when I see a "popcorn" meme, I take it to mean "I can't wait to see what happens next!" or "This should be good!" Does the image convey more or less than the words would? More, I think, because we are wired to have a much more vivid response to a human face than we are to seeing words, whether on paper or on a screen. I also find that I react much more strongly (usually in a mirthful way) if someone texts me an "Aww!" meme than if they simply type "Aww!" on their screen.


It's the claim of every generation that the one coming right after it is degrading the language. There's even a name for this phenomenon: the linguistic complaint tradition. These days the complaints are likely to take the form of lamenting the use of emojis, initialisms, memes, and the like in place of words, along with the time-honored complaints of grammatical and spelling gaffes that are ever more present to us now because we see so much more unedited text in print than we used to. How much credence should we give to present-day complainers along these lines? None, I think.

I was recently persuaded (by a person much younger than me, not surprisingly) to download SnapChat to my phone. I find it a bit overwhelming. The multiple channels and layers that one can add to a simple message to a friend (filters, lenses, music, captions, etc.) offer huge opportunities for creativity, and I don't even know where to start. Or whether I should start. A part of my response to SnapChat, if I may express it graphically is . . .

In other words (since I am overwhelmingly a man of words), my gut wonders why I need all of these tools to convey what I'm thinking or feeling. Are words not enough? But then I'm not of the generation that SnapChat is catering to, and perhaps that says more than everything above about how the media of messaging today are changing the ways we use and modify language to meet our communication needs.

Language will always lie at the heart of the way we communicate because it is our uniquely human tool and the foundation of so many things we do that are distinctly human. But as we evolve and technology evolves, language will evolve with it in ways that we probably can't predict very well just now.

I do have a hunch that today's younger generation will be much more adept at multimedia messaging than any of us old folks are, and it seems inevitable that precision and eloquence in language, so long revered as a mark of creativity, originality, and even genius, will eventually take second place to precision and eloquence in multimedia messaging.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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