Put the phone away and talk to each other, says Olivia O’ Leary

Emojis are ‘the equivalent of a bunch of sterile filling-station forecourt flowers’

Dump emojis, spare exclamation marks, put away phones and talk, writer and broadcaster Olivia O’Leary has said, warning “that our vocabularies are shrinking” because of social media.

“My daughter put it well. ‘My generation, Mum, speaks in exclamation marks, not words.’ And, oh my god, that is SOOOO true!” said the broadcaster and writer.

O’Leary was speaking in a commencement address at an Irish American University graduation ceremony in St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, where an honorary doctorate in literature degree was conferred on her.

There is a need today “to go straight to hyperbole”, to presume that ‘amazing’ or even ‘so amazing’ scattered liberally with exclamation marks like hundreds and thousands on an ice cream cone, will do for all and every occasion”.


Referring to all the words in the Oxford, Chambers, or Collins dictionary, she said: “Isn’t it a pity that we don’t take them out and give them a run down the catwalk and let them strut their stuff?”

Like others, O’Leary receives texts and emails “dressed up with an emoji, a smiley face or a tearful face”, though the experience clearly causes a degree of pain.

“I feel sad that they didn’t take the opportunity to chose the words [to] describe the way they felt instead of sending me a commodified standardised image, the equivalent of a bunch of sterile filling-station forecourt flowers.”

Range of words

Reducing the range of words used was “a bit like having a whole orchestra but using only the percussionist; of playing an organ and pulling out only one stop; of having a full range of tennis shots and using only the forehand; of having a full palette of colours but using only black.”

Speed, whether by phone, text, email, or Twitter, was part of the problem. “To express something thoroughly, precisely and with depth – and even elegance – takes time and thought.” Twitter “leaves no room for balance or elucidation”.

It is “affecting my own craft of journalism badly”, she said, leaving a generation increasingly dependent for its information about news and current affairs on free social media.

Instead of paying for quality and monitored news sources, the audience is receiving a deteriorating service “not only in the quality of the news commentary we receive but in the language used”.

A study at King’s College London indicated that, because internet devices are visual rather than auditory, it was likely today’s children would “end up with a lower average number of words than previous generations”. Our vocabularies, she said, “are shrinking because we’re simply not talking to each other as much”.

She instanced people on public transport these days or young parents out walking with their toddlers who “instead of talking to these beautiful receptive little beings” were on their phones. “But how do children learn speech? By hearing and repetition,” she said.

Shrinking language

A study in Italy had shown "more words are becoming extinct than ever before" with fewer words being introduced to replace them, with a result that "languages appear to be shrinking" at an increasing rate. "This has all happened in the digital age – in the last 20 years," she said.

Another reason why daily vocabulary was becoming poorer was due to “an increasing emphasis on specialisation in almost every area of knowledge” where terminology used was “meant quite deliberately to exclude the outsider”.

She pleaded: “Talk to one another and to your children. Put the phones away if you have a chance of talking to real people. Try limiting the exclamation marks to one every 300 words. Dump the emojis. You don’t need them when you have a treasury of words with which to tailor-make your message,” she said.

Words “are our treasure”, she said. “Let not my, or your generation be the last to know the full beauty and power, the full glory of words,” she concluded.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times