Metaphors Be With You: Slinging the Slang Online

November 24th, 2012 | Category: Essays

Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s Laws of Media (1988) opens with the claim that each of our artifacts is “a kind of word, a metaphor that translates experience from one form to another” (p. 3). For a man of letters to use a linguistic premise upon which to build the laws of media is not surprising. It was McLuhan (1951) after all who pointed out that advertising employs the same strategies as poetry. If we treat software (specifically microblogging platforms) and cities as artifacts, the emergent form seems to be the evolution of language itself: causal, casual language. New slang manifests from urban areas to online services.

A few of Eisenstein, et al’s linguistically linked cities.

Georgia Tech’s Jacob Eisenstein and his colleagues have been studying the conflation of urban populations, microblogging, and the evolution of language. Jim Giles of New Scientist reports one such study:

After collecting the data, the team built a mathematical model that captures the large-scale flow of new words between cities. The model revealed that cities with big African American populations tend to lead the way in linguistic innovation.

Slang that would normally remain isolated in one urban area until picked up by some mass medium or transmitted by traveling users is now narrowcast via networks. Innovators of utterances share their new words without ever seeing another’s city.

Though one can scarcely discuss the transgressions of language, poetry, and the city without mentioning Guy Debord and The Situationists, Michel de Certeau is perhaps the most famous theorist to conflate the urban and the linguistic. “The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered,” he writes (1984, p. 97). “Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks’. All the modalities sing a part in this chorus, changing from step to step, stepping in through proportions, sequences, and intensities which vary according to the time, the path taken and the walker” (p. 99). These thoughts of walking in the city, which is incidentally the name of the chapter from which they are cited, evoke the language of appropriation, allusion, remix. De Certeau continues elsewhere:

Our society has become a recited society, in three senses: it is defined by stories (récits, the fables constituted by our advertising and informational media), by citations of stories, and by the interminable recitation of stories (p. 186).

In other words, we make meaning by appropriating (see also Jenkins, 1992; 2006). William Gibson (2005) writes, “Today’s audience isn’t listening at all–it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.” Slang is not necessarily remix, but it often involves the appropriation of utterances that once meant something else, a recontextualization of their meaning. The use and evolution of slang operates on the same basic premise of sampling and remix, as well as that of metaphor.

The widespread dissemination of pop culture is nothing new. As Todd Gitlin writes in his book Media Unlimited (Metropolitan Books, 2001), “Poetry and song migrated across Europe hand to hand, mouth to ear to mouth. Broadsheets circulated. From the second half of the fifteenth century on, Gutenberg’s movable type made possible mass-printed Bibles and a flood of instructional as well as scurrilous literature. Even where literacy was rare, books were regularly read aloud” (p. 27). Though Gutenberg’s printing press represents what McLuhan (1964) referred to as the first assembly line — one of repeatable, linear text — and is what made large-volume printed information a personal, portable phenomenon, the advent of the telegraph brought forth the initial singularity in the evolution of information technology. As James Carey (1988) observed, the telegraph separated communication from transportation. As news on the wire, information could thereafter spread and travel free from its human progenitors. Information was thusly commoditized. Liberated from books and newspapers, new slang and ideas have since become a larger part of our culture than physical products.

The telegraph is so far antiquated in the landscape of communication technology, simply bringing it up in a serious manner seems almost silly. It’s quite literally like using a word that has fallen out of favor. Words are metaphors, and metaphors are expressions of the unknown in terms of the known. Once a new word is known, it becomes assimilated into the larger language system. The same transition occurs in the evolution of technology: Once a device has obsolesced into a general usage, we forget its original impact. The technological “magic” dissipates.

Slang is verbal violence on new psychic frontiers.
It is a quest for identity. — Marshall Mcluhan

In an interview we did several years ago, Paul D. Miller pointed out that McLuhan once said that “the forces of language in an electronic context would release the ‘Africa Within'” (quoted in Christopher, 2007, p. 244). As Eisenstein and his colleagues seem to have found, our tribes come together online, and language evolves from streets to Tweets.


Carey, James W. (1988). Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. New York: HarperCollins.

Christopher, Roy. (2007). Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky: Subliminal Minded. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear, pp. 235-245.

De Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Eisenstein, Jacob, O’Connor, Brendan, Smith, Noah A., & Xing, Eric P. (2012, October 23). Mapping the geographical diffusion of new words. Retrieved November 24, 2012 from

Gibson, William. (2005, July). God’s Little Toys. WIRED, 13.7.

Giles, Jim. (2012, November 17). Twitter Shows Language Evolves in Cities. New Scientist, 2891.

Gitlin, Todd. (2001). Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Jenkins, Henry. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1951). The Mechanical Bride. New York: Vanguard Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1970). Culture is Our Business. New York: Ballantine Books.

McLuhan, Marshall & McLuhan, Eric (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.


This piece is another of my many early rough drafts that I’m working on extending elsewhere. Thanks to Brian McFarland for links and correspondence. Apologies to Carrie Fisher for the title.

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