The erosion of Latinate plurals into singulars isn’t particularly new.
People have been referring to an agenda for decades. In fact, anybody who refers to a single agenda point as an agendum or calls the itinerary these agenda is probably being wilfully waffly and almost certainly deserves your derision. But there are more recent changes of a similar sort that aren’t yet quite so entrenched and may have wider implications for the discussion at hand.
When regarding the recent explosion of available information about each of us it’s easy to imagine a narrative arc for the data/datum kerfuffle. When data was plural, it referred to multiple datum points: numerous pieces of information gathered in one place. A collection of specific items of information that you could point at that datum, that one, and this one here.
Consider banking. In the 70s, your banking data trail was top-line and concise. Perhaps you paid in £25 on this date, withdrew £5 on that date, a cheque was presented on that date.
As such information became more commonplace and more voluminous, data as a singular concept emerged: an amorphous collection of information of various types: you logged into your bank account at this time on that date, you made these transactions, you paid that amount by card in this location, your credit status was checked on this date and so on. The sheer volume of the information moved it away from a manageable list of datum points towards the catch-all multiplicity of data. We all engage with finance, with brands and with technology so much more frequently that our data trail is increasing as rapidly as the capacity for this information to be collected. In this context, a single piece of information is certainly redundant and possibly meaningless, so it is not surprising that the use and value of the singular datum fell away.
But with data transformed into a mass noun, we were denuded of the plural. Datas is clearly awful. So, when this accumulation of information grew incomprehensibly large; when technology and computing achieved the capacity for combining one database with another or bridging information from over there into that system here; data didn’t quite cover it. Hence the emergence of that spectacularly clumsy neologism big data. Holding data about someone doesn’t really describe the capacity to anonymise their credit card transactions, their social media information, the demography associated with their address, their browsing history and their mobile phone geolocation and hash them together in a form that has value for some intricate purpose. For all that it sounds like a truly terrible wrestler, big data at least gestures in the right direction.
“I am large, I contain multitudes”
The data/datum story is repeated with media and medium. Strictly, by current definitions, media is a plural and should be treated as such. In many cases it still is: this is a situation where the language seems to be mid-change. Where one medium is an outlet through which information can be delivered to an audience, media is used to describe any quantity of these greater than one. I still frown a little (fine, a lot) when I read “mediums” in an email, and in truth, I am unsure whether the issue is the writer’s usage or my own fustiness.
However, as the available tools for dissemination have fragmented and multiplied, again the plural is becoming the singular. It’s often useful today to be able to speak of the media as one entity comprising all these different outlets, to which the speaker can then ascribe agency and intent. Ranting about these media is significantly less satisfying than being able to blame the media. But then when there’s a necessary subdivision of media types you risk tangling yourself within Cantor’s different sets of infinity: each containing countless multitudes and yet still a singular within an infinite whole. Social media, print media, left-wing media, out of home media, state media… Individually each of these is media: they take the plural word but their function within the sentence is singular. Talking about the social medium appears to make little sense.
But how do you describe more than one of these groups together without tunnelling into a grammatical imbroglio? As with any language snafu where I’m unsure how best to proceed, I tend to dodge the issue and start talking about channels instead, but for many, it seems medias is emerging as a contender, and we might eventually see this fulfilling a similar role to big data.
Did you miss our first post where I discussed how scroll no longer refers to the rolled-up parchment and now is how we interact with content? You can check out our first post on Media’s influence on our language. And if you’re enjoying our Language of Media Series, our final post will touch on the end of digital and commodifying understanding.
– Ed Hill, Managing Partner