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Pronounced /ˈmiːdɪəm/Help with pronunciation

The medium may be the message, but this week the media have made the news, with the Academy Awards, the announced take-over of Random House by Bertelsmann and controversy concerning Rupert Murdoch’s bid to acquire a financial stake in the Italian media empire of Sylvio Berlusconi.

Collins, one of Murdoch’s companies, may have declared recently that television was the winner of its competition to find the word of the century, but the more general term media might perhaps be a better choice. As we would expect, it’s first recorded only in 1923, originally as part of the phrase mass media (of communication), a term which understandably was quickly shortened. So much has media lost its link with medium that it’s common to find it treated as a singular or mass noun, a form which will almost certainly prevail in time.

We got to the mass media through a series of stages. The original was the Latin medius, “middle”. (Actually, this came from the same Indo-European root that bequeathed us mid and middle, but let’s not get into this so deeply that we can’t get out again). In English, medium appeared in the language at the end of the sixteenth century as a noun for a middle quantity or degree. Later it was applied to something that lay between others, intermediate in status or position, and so by a transferred sense it could mean the thing itself that lay between others. This might be a substance through which a force acted, or through which impressions passed to reach our senses, and so could refer to some intervening agency or channel by which a thing reaches us. So Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621: “To the Sight three things are required, the Object, the Organ, and the Medium”.

In the following century, it was common to refer to newspapers and other periodicals in this way, so a correspondent could write in the Gentlemen’s Magazine of 1791: “Some useful information .. may .. be hoped for through the medium of your curious Publication” (he wasn’t being rude: curious then could mean “enquiring” and also “fastidious, careful, particular about details”). This continued through the next century, as in a reference in The Coach Builders’ Art Journal of 1880: “Considering your Journal one of the best possible mediums for such a scheme”. (Although media had been used since the middle of the century, it was still not common as the plural.)

Two forces have combined this century to extend this sense and to create a specialised sense for media. The larger was the growth in advertising as an economic force and specialised discipline. The other was the enlargement of the mechanisms of advertising following the growth of radio and television. (This was at first much more important in North America than in Britain, as there was no advertising in British broadcasting until the start of ITV in 1954.) Media became a valuable word as a group technical term for all these mechanisms of communication and led to compounds such as media buyer and media studies.

The old joke has it that television is called a medium because it’s neither rare nor well done. To judge from the history and evolution of the word, we do seem to have had a vast need for words that signify such a middle way between extremes. The Latin original has directly spawned mean (at first in the sense of “occupying a middle or intermediate place” and later in the mathematical sense of “average”), median, mediate (first as an adjective, then as a verb), intermediate, medieval (of the Middle Ages), mediocre (of middling quality, neither good nor bad), meridian (Latin meridies, that is, medius + dies, the middle of the day), moiety (at first a half part, that is, something cut in the middle, then more loosely one’s share or portion of any size), and even mitten, which ultimately derives from the same root, through French, meaning a glove divided into two parts. If you include words that have come via the Italian mezzo, you also have mezzotint, mezzanine, intermezzo, and mezzo-soprano.

A less obvious derivative is immediate, at first something that was related to another without anything in between (a sense which we retain in phrases like “immediate neighbour”), or something that acted directly without any agency intervening. Only in the seventeenth century did the related sense evolve of something that occurred at once.

With media, we have moved so far from any implication of an intermediary that we hardly think any longer of, say, television as a mechanism by which something is brought to us, but as a thing in itself. Which brings me back to Marshall McLuhan’s comment that I quoted at the beginning of this piece.

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Page created 28 Mar 1998