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The Etymology of LOL by Victoria Leong

What social media may be doing to our vocabulary

Twitter, the iPhone touchscreen keyboard, and even Sarah Palin, have all left a mark on the way we speak, write and think. “LOL” (“laughing out loud”) and “OMG” (“oh my God” or “oh my gosh”), the staple of youngsters on social media platforms, have even strong-armed their way into the Oxford Dictionaries. Fast-paced, intense interactions with others on web-based and mobile applications introduce potential language pitfalls, such as e-miscommunication and over-reliance on the cliché (a word which is itself becoming a banality).

In the past, the addition of new English words was driven by interaction with foreign tongues and the creative human imagination. One of the greatest periods of growth for the English language occurred between the closing of the 16th century and the opening of the 17th. The bloom in foreign trade, particularly colonialism, was one engine of growth. It is also perhaps no coincidence that William Shakespeare (1564–1616), the most commonly quoted author in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was at his most prolific at that time (we have him to thank for indispensable words such as “eyeballs” and “puking”).

Credit: Yago Veith

Today, other than globalisation, technology and social networking are arguably the largest forces shaping our lexicon. With the character limits on text messages and Twitter, people come up with ever more ingenious ways to express themselves as concisely as possible. Small portable screens and unwieldy input keyboards on mobile devices have also contributed to the popularity of initialisms and contractions.

According to the OED, the earliest written record of “LOL”, used in the contemporary sense, was by Canadian netizen Wayne Pearson in the 1980s. Thinking that smiley faces simply did not convey enough emotion to describe the hilarity of the joke, Pearson came up with “LOL” instead. The irony is that the cliché may be so overused – and in such frivolous ways – that it no longer conveys any particular emotion or valuable sentiment. If filler words existed in virtual chat rooms, “LOL” would be just the tiresome cliché you fall back on when you are unsure of what else to say.

Words are losing their conventional meaning as quickly as it takes to type them and send them into the sea of Internet traffic. Even the words “friend” (as in “add you on Facebook”) and “heart” (as in “I ♥ NY”), in their popularised usage, have become superficial ghosts of their traditional meaning. As the words catch on and form the latest fad, the spread through the Internet and text messages is viral. This is in contrast to the past, where most communication occurred verbally or through print.

Furthermore, miscommunication via electronic media is exacerbated by the introduction of non-intuitive and confusing jargon. Those who are not well versed in speaking the latest slang often have to ask for clarification, which slows communication instead. Take a look at the word “whatever”, which has multitude of meanings, from “I’m OK with anything” to “Fine, I’m wrong” to “I don’t care what you say”. Other than the most prevalent definition “laugh out loud”, “LOL” could equally stand for “lots of love” or “lots of luck”. Imagine the confusion if one gets it wrong!

Credit: Rob Boudon

This begs the question: why do we type “LOL” (I have heard friends who actually say “L-O-L” in person) when we don’t truly guffaw out loud? Why bother with vague colloquialisms when the other party might get the wrong message? Initialisms like “LOL” are favoured over their full-length counterparts because the typist can express himself more quickly and in a smaller number of bytes – most of the time. Teenagers also like to sound cool among their friends when they are savvy with the latest Internet slang. There comes a tipping point where knowing the lingo is the rule, and being the exception earns you an “unhappening” label.

On the other hand, one might point out that these Internet-inspired terms enrich the English lexicon. Most linguists would agree that languages get more complex and expressive over time. While the number of new words added to the dictionary certainly outweighs words falling into obsolescence, one wonders what happens to a twelve-year-old kid’s vocabulary when he is constantly flooded by “LOLs” and “OMGs” through emails, Facebook and text messages. Effectively, he is choosing “LOL” over more sophisticated synonyms like “jocular” and “mirthful”.

But is this a problem, really? As Thomas Jefferson noted, “Dictionaries are but the repositories of words already legitimated by usage.” From a practical standpoint, the job of the dictionary is merely to catalogue words that are already in widespread use, instead of acting as a purist guardian for the English language. The latest language trends may simply be one sign of its adapting to our changing environment. This is especially so for the younger generation, which increasingly perceive their digital life as part and parcel of their personal identity.

In any case, human capriciousness, especially among teenagers, guarantees that the social media whirlwind will soon move on from dusty clichés like “LOL” to other sexier and more rad chat acronyms. Instead of the mere addition of a meaning, perhaps we might one day adopt the symbol “♥” or “<3” as a word in itself. After all, we already use diacritic symbols (“é”) and ligatures (“æ”) in our dictionary. To those like Pearson who feel that “love” is not enough, “♥” might be a much more evocative and interesting way to confess to one’s amour.

Language is vigorously alive. Its rapid evolution in the wild jungles of the Internet is exciting and imaginative. In many ways, social media represents powerful new avenues of language evolution, learning and communication. However, in its most popular forms, it borders on over-simplification and threatens to thrust other words into disuse. Sarah Palin may have compared herself to Shakespeare, but IMHO, that may have been just a tad unappreciative of the legacy cultivated by over a century’s worth of English history.

List for the less happening

LOL: “laugh out loud”, used to express amusement

OMG: “oh my God”, “oh my gosh”, and the like

Unhappening: untrendy or not up-to-date

Rad: “radical”, cool, excellent, impressive

IMHO: “in my honest opinion”

Victoria Leong is a law undergraduate at Singapore Management University. She sees nothing wrong with chat acronyms when they free up more time for readings. Her interests include travelling, badminton and all things Japan.


2 Responses to “The Etymology of LOL by Victoria Leong”

  1. IMHO= In My Humble (Not Honest) Opinion

    Posted by Rayquaza | September 14, 2013, 8:43 pm


  1. [...] rather than speech. And that makes things tricky when you try to figure out how to pronounce them. LOL (aka ‘laugh out loud’) is one of my favourites because the sound, when you voice the acronym, matches the sentiment so [...]

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