2018 US-to-UK Word of the Year: mainstream media/MSM

It was a tough year for deciding on Separated by a Common Language Words of the Year, and so I am very grateful to those who nominated US-to-UK and UK-to-US borrowings that seemed 'very 2018'. So grateful that I offered a prize for the best nominations. And our first winner is: Simon K! Simon—please contact me off-blog with your postal details and your choice of prize: Lane Greene's Talk on the Wild Side or my The Prodigal Tongue.

And Simon's winning word? Well, some of you are going to complain that it's not a word. Enjoy your complaining. I've written several times about why 'that's not a word, that's a phrase' complaints don't bother me.  If you want to read several paragraphs on the topic, see this old Word of the Year post. To give you a taste of it, I'll quote myself:
It all comes down to your definition of word. We can fight about it, but I'll just phone in my part of the fight because 'word' is not a terribly useful linguistic concept. Most people think of words as bits of writing with spaces on either side, but that doesn't work [because it's circular reasoning...]. [This Word of the Year is] a bit of language whose meaning is more than the sum of its parts and whose form-meaning association has to be learn{ed/t} by, and stored in the memory of competent speakers of the language. That's good enough for me.
And so what is it? It is...

Mainstream Media (or MSM)

Here's what Simon said in his nomination:
You could make a plausible argument that that I'm a year late in nominating this, but I'd make a couple of points.

Firstly, I think that the usage has changed over this year. In 2017, it was still being discussed as though it's notable that the term was being used here - see, for example, this article, the media talking about the media. By 2018, the term is being used much less self-consciously, in contexts such as sport - see this, from the footballer Stan Collymore.

Secondly, with all the caveats about its use as a source, I notice that the Wikipedia article on "Mainstream media" had no UK section until 2018. 

I've noticed it too—from Jeremy-Corbyn-supporting Facebook friends sharing links from dodgy websites because of their distrust of the "MSM". Among my US Facebook connections (who are politically more varied than my UK ones), I see MSM used by people on the left, but more from those on the right. But that sample is very biased.

Image from https://www.adfontesmedia.com/
The term isn't in a lot of dictionaries, and it's not in the ones that I check that have date-of-origin information. There are examples of mainstream media in the Corpus of Historical American English going back to the 1980s, but it really picks up in the 2000s decade in the US. In the News on the Web corpus, it's present in the UK since 2010 (when the corpus starts), but doubles in usage in 2016 and continues to rise in 2017. For some reason, the stats don't show up for all of 2018 data on that site, so I won't say it's absolutely of 2018, but it seems to continue to spread this year.

Mainstream media is used in a purely descriptive way by lots of people for a lot of reasons. I note that Ben Zimmer was given an award (well deserved!) for his "linguistic contributions to mainstream media." It's the abbreviated form MSM that often takes on a pejorative tone—and very often a pejorative tone is taken toward its pejorative tone. A lot of examples in the NOW corpus from 2018 are like this one (by a conservative columnist), identifying MSM-use as a symptom of 'nuttiness':
"The Westminster bubble” is a phrase so universal that it is in danger of losing its meaning – or, worse, becoming a sign of slight nuttiness, along with phrases like “wake up, sheeple”, “the MSM”, and “I’m a Liberal Democrat”.
Of course, the NOW corpus is mostly made up of mainstream media sources, so one would expect them to be pejorative about the pejoration (though it does include the comments sections—and many of the examples seem to be from angry commenters). There's a problem in counting how many MSMs there are in BrE, as it's also used a lot in public-health talk about Men who have Sex with Men—but the frequency of MSM overall doubled about the same time that mainstream media doubled.

Looking at the latest near-London* uses of MSM on Twitter, one can find more sincere usages. It's not surprising that many instances of it are in discussions of Brexit—seemingly from both sides of the issue. But as in my Facebook feed, a lot of UK uses seem to relate to Jeremy Corbyn (and whether he gets a fair deal from the MSM). In the Google Image Search I did to find the illustration for this piece, the two key "victims" of MSM media bias are Corbyn and Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson).

So, established in the US for a while before coming to the UK, but in very active use in the UK now...that fits my criteria for a WotY. Thanks again, Simon!

Oh, and speaking of Words of the Year and the authors of the two book prizes for this competition, Lane Greene, Anton La Guardia and I talked about words of the year for Economist Radio (released this week, but recorded before I'd decided on my WotYs). Please listen here!

*Sorry to be London-centric, but when I tried putting 'UK' in Twitter Advanced Search, it gave me zero results!


  1. Not that it's especially relevant, but on the right here in the US it's become common to resort to a variation of "Mainstream Media" -- "Lamestream Media" -- to drive home the point about the mainstream media's, uh, lameness.

  2. About that Economist Radio podcast you pointed to, Lynne, which I listened to and very much enjoyed. I feel compelled to weigh in on the Americanism "Can I get a ..." and its theoretical origins on the unstoppable TV sitcom "Friends". It's possible this odd phrase caught fire because of "Friends", but I can state with certainty that the first time I heard it -- uttered by a good friend when both of us were ordering sandwiches in a Deli on Long Island -- came long before anyone used it to order a latte at the show's signature cafe, Central Perk. Indeed, my instincts tell me that at the time I heard him use it we were either both still in college or shortly thereafter (which would mean late 1970s or early 1980s), because I recall vaguely thinking that he must have picked up this perverse phrasing from his fellow students in Boston. It was, moreover, sufficiently perverse to my ear that I made a point of never adopting it. So I guess this is one instance where, linguistically speaking, I find myself on the side of the Brits.

  3. Hi Dick, Yes “can I get a “ is old in the US. But we were particularly talking about how it got to the UK. I examine the Friends theory in The Prodigal Tongue. :)

    1. Egads, I've forgotten your discussion! And I read and enjoyed The Prodigal Tongue last spring. Chalk it up to my faulty sexagenerian memory.

    2. Tell me about it.

      What were we talking about, again?

  4. Well, it hadn't reached my lexicon. I assumed it simply meant 'not social media'. I wonder how many other British speakers make the same assumption.

    The Wikipedia article that Someone K! refers to does indeed have a section on Mainstream Media in the United Kingdom — but it deals with something entirely different from the America-related bulk of the article. I'm not sure what term best describes BBC and ITV to the exclusion of other television services, but mainstream media is a very strange choice.

    The old-established sources of news in Britain are the press — newspapers and magazines — and the news broadcasts on all radio and TV stations. Few press organs try to be impartial, but most political views are represented somewhere or other. The TV news providers are far less diverse, all aiming at editorial neutrality while introducing a plurality of opinions.

    The only setup that could be called a 'news conglomerate' is the aggregation of papers and news channel originally owned by Rupert Murdoch. True, The Times and The Sun are on the right of British politics, but their editorial policies and the political stories they choose to carry are markedly different. Murdoch did exert pressure, but his day is done. And Sky News has always held to the standard of BBC and ITN. The style is a little more popular, and the emphasis is relentlessly on breaking news, but otherwise I see little difference.

    I'm not surprised that the term is used by Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. Rupert Murdoch has long been a bogey-man for the left. And, like the far right, they see bias in the BBC whenever their views are not echoed. But I don't see why non-Corbynistas would have any use for the term. Well, OK, the far right probably feel the same.

    The Wikipedia article is all about corporations. In Britain, we worry about proprietors, which is why we think of Rupert Murdoch rather than News Corporation. (It took me ages to catch up with its changed from News International.) Indeed, the usual (now outdated) term is 'the Murdoch press' or 'the Murdoch organisation'.

    1. The Wikipedia entry on "mainstream media" is a little on the dilatory side, as is the section devoted to the United Kingdom. The relevant stuff all appears in the opening couple of paragraphs, of which this sentence is noteworthy: "Consequently, the term mainstream media has been widely used in conversation and the blogosphere, sometimes in oppositional, pejorative, or dismissive senses, in discussion of the mass media and media bias." Essentially the term was coined and spread by those on the far right (though it may have some appeal on the far left) to dismiss whatever appears in mass-circulation newspaper, magazine, and television news programming regardless of who the "proprietors" may be.

      That's not to say that the proprietors are always irrelevant to those on the far right. Since the Jews are perhaps their favorite bugbear, it wouldn't be hard to find someone online ranting about Jeff Zucker, the president of Cable News Network (aka CNN). CNN is best known as the television news outlet President Trump most loves to hate ... home of what he calls "fake news". Indeed, the term "fake news" might as well be a synonym of "mainstream media" -- both terms grant permission to sweeping segments of the far right to disregard and dismiss any news story critical of the President. In that respect I'd guess there is a corresponding segment of the British population that feels free to disregard and dismisses any mass-circulation medium (again, regardless of proprietor) that, say, dares to criticize Brexit or the imposition of more restrictive immigration laws.

  5. In that respect I'd guess there is a corresponding segment of the British population that feels free to disregard and dismisses any mass-circulation medium (again, regardless of proprietor) that, say, dares to criticize Brexit or the imposition of more restrictive immigration laws.

    Dick, our free-to-view news sources are bulletins on the BBC and ITV and two dedicated channels provided by the BBC and Sky. (Other Sky channels must be paid for, one way or another.) All of these strive for political neutrality in their editorial decisions. They give voice to anti-Brexit and pro-immigration voices as well as to those diametrically opposed. The only opinions excluded are those that are illegal, or uncomfortably close to illegal.

    Some groups do accuse the BBC especially of bias on the grounds that it over-represents the views they despise, and under-represent their own views. This is nothing new. Right-winger have long believed that the BBC was the mouthpiece of a bunch of pinko liberals.

    Conversely, the BBC was until recently criticised for being too balanced. Climate-change deniers are extremely rare in Britain, but for a while the BBC would balance interviews with scientists with country statements from one of the loud deniers —usually Nigel Lawson.

    Whatever criticisms are made of the BBC (or, less often, of ITN or Sky), it lsn't that they're 'mainstream'. A more usual word would be 'lefty'.

    Our press is diverse — although right-wing papers predominate. Those of us who are politically-minded choose to read the paper that best corresponds to our pre-existing views. Liberal-minded individuals of the centre and left-of-centre are well served by the Guardian — provided that they also appreciate the educated, serious tone of what used to be called 'the broadsheets'. For those with more popular tastes in reading, among what used to be called 'the tabloids' the Mirror is pretty left-wing. The most anti-Brexit of papers is The Financial Times, but nobody chooses it for its politics.

    We are rightly ashamed of the old wave of hostility to Commonwealth immigrants with black or brown skins, so current anti-immigration views are carefully phrased, often in dog-whistle code. A populist protest is that elite voices are accusing ordinary decent people of racism, that it is liberating and just to break this perceived taboo.

    Yes, there are those who perceive some enemy that is opposed to Brexit and supportive of immigrants. But that enemy is not 'the media' in any shape or form. Rather it is 'the Westminster bubble', 'the political classes', 'the liberal elite'. In that they object to the Mirror or the Guardian or the Financial Times, it is as a mouthpiece for the enemy. It would be ridiculous to regard any of these pares as 'mainstream'.

    There is no consensus in our press, but there is a set of opinions more represented than others. On these two questions it is pro-Brexit and codedly critical of immigration — careful not to demonise immigrants but sympathetic to working-class complaints of wage deflation and pressures on public services.

    You'd be hard pressed to find anyone here who sympathised with — or even understood — those supporters of Trump.

    And the only overt anti-Semitism to be heard is from some of the hard left with their vitriolic hatred of Israel and therefore of any perceived sympathisers and supporters..

  6. Shortly after posting the above, I heard a thoughtful and extensive discussion in a radio news magazine programme on the effect of technology on politics. Currently it can be heard in the UK — and, hopefully, world-wide — here (starting at 18:10)


    I hope it's available in America, and I hope that it stays available. It's really interesting.

    In the opening exchange both interviewer and expert use the term mainstream media in the sense that I originally understood it — namely 'not the Internet'. And they repeat the same phrase later a few times in the conversation, consistently as a contrast to Facebook, Twitter etc.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)