Whatever Happened to Words? – Why “Symbol Swapping” is freaking me out.

I was texting when it happened.

My headphone case had gone missing, and I was asking a couple of people if they’d seen it. Now, normally I love the little word-replacement feature at the bottom of the phone screen. It’s very handy, since typos are easy to make using just two thumbs on a miniature keyboard (And I HATE sending typos in a text. Perfectionist writer here).

But this time I didn’t need a word replacement. I had spelled “headphones” just fine. Yet, the word-replacement box still tried to help me. And what it offered wasn’t a word replacement at all. It was a PICTURE replacement. A tiny little headphone emoji. This happens regularly now. Almost any time I type a  noun, it offers me a picture to replace it.

And you know that? I think that’s scary.

Why? Well think about it. What do I need a picture for, when I’ve already gone to the trouble to type out a nine-letter word? Maybe if the phone could read my mind and offer one-click replacement images BEFORE I’d typed out the word, it might actually serve a purpose (increased speed). But to replace it with a picture AFTER I’ve written it? What is the point?

You’re probably thinking. “Ok, Leya. You don’t like emojis. So what? That’s not really worth writing a whole blog post about.”

Bear with me. This isn’t really about emojis.

Actually I like face emojis. The ones that express an EMOTION. They really serve a purpose, if added to your words. (Because unlike verbal communication, it’s impossible for the person on the other side of the text message to read your facial expression and interpret how you meant the words.) I use those emojis all the time.

What I’m talking about is using emojis (or other symbols) INSTEAD OF words. And the reason it bothered me on my phone is because of a strange new phenomenon that has been creeping up on me from all directions.

I call it “Symbol Swapping.” And it’s scaring me.

All of the sudden, everywhere I turn, somebody is replacing written words with tiny picture symbols. Emojis are just the tip of the iceberg. A month ago, when I was visiting friends in Idaho, they were trying to turn on their new heating unit in the guest room. It came with a remote, but the remote was useless if you didn’t have the instruction manual at your fingertips because nothing was labeled with words. Just symbols. And since we weren’t familiar with this new device, we had no idea what the symbols meant. If there had been WORDS (i.e. heat, air, fan, auto), changing the settings would have been no problem. But instead we were presented with an assortment of tiny symbols we had never seen before, and had to look up in the manual just to understand. Great.

And it didn’t stop there. I came home to find we had a new CD player/radio at my house. When I tried to change the play-mode settings, I ran into the same problem. Our old one used words (mix, repeat, repeat once, repeat all, etc). The new one just had symbols. Twirly arrows going in different directions, with a number thrown in here or there. I couldn’t for the life of me tell what half of them meant. (Somebody had thrown out the manual).

And have you noticed what’s happening to the dash in your car? The words are disappearing. You don’t get “check engine” anymore. You get a mysterious little outline of something that looks like part of a space-ship. Instead of “tire pressure” you get a exclamation-point in a pair of parentheses.  I drove a diesel truck for the first time in my life last week, and was told to wait for the “coil” symbol to turn off before staring the engine. Well, I never did see a symbol that looked anything like a coil to me. The only thing close was a lightening bolt inside some inverted parentheses. Still not sure if that’s what they were talking about or not. (But the truck worked fine, so I guess maybe it was).

The point is, it’s happening everywhere. The whole world seems to be intent on replacing perfectly legible words with mysterious symbols that require reading a manual to understand.

I’m staring to feel like I wandered into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

As  a writer, this is crazy to me. Since when are words not good enough? After all, if you think about it, words ARE symbols. Or actually, they are made up of symbols (letters). Twenty-six simple symbols that can be combined to express any thought or idea in the English language.

And yet, for some reason, that beautifully simple system isn’t being used. Now every company that comes out with a CD player or an air conditioning unit or a vehicle is swapping out those familiar 26 letter symbols for their own set of mysterious picture symbols that nobody recognizes unless they’ve read the manual.

And I’m worried this may be symptomatic of the state of our entire culture. Reading is becoming a lost art. According to a recent study, the statistics on reading in this country are scary. Researchers found, among other things:

  • The average American young adult spends 2 hours per day watching television, and only 7 minutes reading.
  • Employers find 72% of high school graduates are deficient in writing English.
  • The number of adults with bachelor’s degrees who are ranked “proficient in reading” is down to around 30%
  • American teens ranked fifteenth place in reading scores when compared to around 30  other industrialized nations. Behind Poland, France, Korea, Canada, and others.
  • Reading scores for all American adults are dropping, notably among the best educated groups.

If you this does not concern you, it should. Because this isn’t just about reading. The same report found that “literary readers” are much more likely to “exercise, visit art museums, keep up with current events, vote in presidential elections, and perform volunteer work.” In comparison, those who spend their time watching TV and playing video games (i.e. pictures instead of words) are far more passive overall.

Or in other words, the study suggests that the decline in reading corresponds with a decline in education, initiative, and cultural involvement, and that “The majority of young Americans will not realize their individual, economic, or social potential.”

That doesn’t just concern me because I’m an author. It concerns me because it effects our entire society.

And that’s why I think headphone emojis are scary. To me they are a symbol (yeah, see what I did there?) of a culture that is forgetting the beauty and power of the written word. And in the process, committing cultural suicide.

So the next time you’re texting, and the helpful little replacement bar at the bottom offers to swap you a symbol for a perfectly good word you’ve already typed out…

Just ignore it. And send the written word.

You might be helping save a culture.



Oh by the way, if you’re one of the shrinking number of Americans who DO still love to read, (either books or blog posts), then don’t forget to subscribe to my mailing list! You’ll be the first to know about new blog posts, PLUS you’ll get access to exclusive, insider discounts when my new book comes out in August.

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6 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Words? – Why “Symbol Swapping” is freaking me out.

  1. AnnaS says:

    Excellent article, like always! I love using face emojis too. Though apparently I haven’t bought anything new in a while because I have not run into symbols yet; which is just fine with me. You can keep them.

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