The Etymology of Instagram

While writing about social media yesterday, a thought occurred: what’s the etymology of the name Instagram? The Insta- part seemed pretty obvious, but I was curious about the –gram part. Luckily, when you want to find out about the etymology of the names of social media, you don’t have to do too much digging…

According to the Wikipedia page for Instagram, the name is a portmanteau of instant camera and telegram. I found this very interesting, because I assumed the –gram part of the name had been chosen to convey a sense of the visual, as the stem –gram is often found in words associated with images. Like diagram, hologram, cardiogram and so on. But a telegram is a message consisting solely of words. It’s got nothing to do with images.

This of course then got me thinking about words ending in –graph and –gram. –graph can also be associated with images: graph, graphics etc. But then, there are a lot of words associated with writing that also end in –graph: autograph, monograph etc. Without thinking too much about it, it seems pretty clear that we use –gram and –graph to refer to either images or words, depending on the context. This isn’t surprising when we consider that in Greek, both endings meant something written or drawn. How times haven’t changed.

I suppose when you really think it about it, we don’t distinguish between words and images as much as we might imagine. What are letters but little pictures to which we attach significance? On a grander scale, most of us use emojis in our writing: I know I do J. Most forms of writing (all types of articles, children’s books, comic books, some novels) feature images to help tell the story. And I think even though there are many different types of thinking and learning, we primarily think in terms of images, as it’s the most fundamental way we interpret the world. We then translate these images into words in our mind, and then perhaps once more into spoken or written words. So it’s no wonder we link images and words so closely.

Which brings me back to Instagram, and having thought things through a little, the name makes more sense to me. The instant camera part goes without saying, but the telegram part seems kind of logical too now. Like a telegram, an Instagram post is brief and can be transmitted instantly over long distances. The only major difference is that Instagram posts convey their messages (mainly) with images rather than words. But they’re still saying Aren’t you jealous of my holiday? or Look what I had for breakfast, or Here, have another picture of the dog, isn’t he cute? If there weren’t a message attached to every picture, we wouldn’t send them, would we? It’s all communication, all language on some level. A picture paints a thousand words, after all.

CYNICAL SOCIAL-MEDIA PLUG:

Speaking of social media, this blog now has a dedicated page on Facebook. I don’t exactly know that means yet, but it seems to be the thing to do when you’ve had a blog for a while. So I’ve done it. What it means in practical terms, for now, is that my blog posts will now be automatically be published there, rather than on my personal Facebook page. And it’ll allow me to repost older posts shamelessly and tangentially related to topical stories (imagine if I’d been as cynical as to share this one about the word eclipse on the day of the eclipse!?), write brief thoughts not entirely deserving of a whole blog post, and share funny pictures of dogs. So if that’s your cup of tea, make your way here:

https://www.facebook.com/englishlanguagethoughts/

If it’s just about the words for you, then you still know where to find me.

10 thoughts on “The Etymology of Instagram

  1. I found this very interesting. I agree that the squares of images serve as a kind of telegram, often with no caption needed.

    Like

  2. A picture paints a thousand words – so true! Especially the “Aren’t you jealous of my holiday?” sort of thing. Unfortunately we are all a bit snap-happy these days, I’m totally guilty of it. I’ve always been a photography geek, and proud of it, but since the rise of iPhones, I now take photos of EVERYTHING, unlike when I was younger when I only got my camera out for animals, nature or family shots.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m the same, it’s just too easy to get a good picture now! I still remember family holidays when we wouldn’t want to waste the film, but then arrive home with six photos to spare, so we’d end up taking pictures of the dog to use up the film and get it developed!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Two of my students were comparing mobile phone apps, one of which was Instagram. One released the final /m/ and made it sound like ‘Instagramma’, which the other understood as ‘Instagrammar’.

    Liked by 1 person

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