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An Oral History of LOL

Phrases like A/S/L and TTYL may have bit the dust post-chatroom era. But there’s one term from the early days of the Internet that continues on as a major part of our lexicon: LOL. It’s an acronym, a verb, and literally means “fun” in the Dutch language. So how has this Oxford Dictionary-approved word stood the test of time? We decided to do some research into the past, present, and future of LOL.

The Murky Internet Origin Story

When exactly did LOL hit the World Wide Web? It depends on who you ask. A former Canadian student named Wayne Pearson claims he coined the phrase in the early to mid 1980s. Pearson says he used it on the now-defunct bulletin board system Viewline. His message was in response to a friend making him truly laugh out loud. He believes LOL spread across the platform and into other online platforms as Viewline users moved to GEnie and AOL. Unfortunately, there is no record of Pearson’s initial usage. He even admits that he doesn’t expect people to believe his story.

FidoNews Newsletter LOL mention 1989

Textfiles

Meanwhile, we can find the first documented use of LOL in FidoNews, a newsletter still in print today. A May 1989 edition features pre-emoji icons to convey a wide range of emotions along with several initialisms like LOL. Other familiar phrases like BRB and BTW appear as well. LOL became commonplace on Usenet, a discussion network that laid the foundation for Internet forums with threaded discussions and newsgroup categories.

The Oxford English Dictionary confirms the earliest documented use of LOL on Usenet as a 1993 post about walking out of the movies. The text says: “LOL… Damn that’s even worse. Ba Ha Ha Ha ha ha!” (We have to wonder what 1993 flick they were talking about!) The OED also reveals that the San Diego Tribune also mentioned LOL in a 1993 article. The post says that someone who cracks a joke might get an LOL in response. This may not be the first instance of an article deeming LOL a rising catchphrase, but it confirms its expansion into the general public consciousness.

LOL’s Ascent to Online Infamy

The use of LOL continued to spread throughout the ’90s and early 2000s with additional social and web hosting platforms like GeoCities (launched in 1994), SixDegrees (1997), and Live Journal (1999). LOL also appeared in endless chatroom, IMs, and pretty much anywhere people communicated online.

This ascent took place long before free unlimited text messages between different networks. Microblogs had character limits and phones didn’t operate like mini computers. So, it is no surprise that people gravitated towards shortened forms of communication. Ph.D. Candidate of Linguistics Rachel Elizabeth Weissler, M.A. offered Nerdist a deeper perspective on why LOL and other acronyms became critical components of Internet and mobile language.

“The whole point of language and communication is about getting what you need to say to the other person … You want to do it fast, you want to do it quickly, you want to do it clearly, and you want it to be understandable. And so, the goal is to always do it in the quickest, most efficient way possible. Why say, ‘Oh my gosh, that was so funny! I can’t believe it!’ when you can say LMAO? That allows us to respond quickly back and forth and keep the banter going and conversation moving.

One assumption [is] that children or younger generations were using shortened acronyms like LOL and ROFL. But the research showed that adults are the ones using them more in text form. We now have these full keyboards on iPhones and Androids where we can type full things and it’s not a problem. But if you think about a flip phone where you had to press a button to get one letter, that’s a reason why those shortened terms became prominent and may also be attributed to why older people use them more often.”

Kendra Calhoun, M.A., a linguist who specializes in sociocultural linguistics, explains that using phrases like LOL and abbreviating common phrases/names is economical in more than one sense. “Back in the early days of texting there were character limits on text messages and so if you went over so many characters, you had to pay extra money,” Calhoun said. “If you sent multiple texts you were paying by text. So you wanted your information to fit into as few messages as possible. Using shorthand or what people now think of as ‘text speak’ with letters and numbers as opposed to full words was very economic in a literal sense. But, we also use abbreviations and shorthand in general speech like with offices or government policies.”

She continued, “Think of things like DHS, NATO, WHO, CDC…we have all these acronyms that circulate because it’s easier to say than type or text. It’s also communicative efficiency for people like me who may be poor typists. It saves time on having to fix mistakes. [Abbreviations] also become sort of a marker of having insider or cultural knowledge, right? You’re following the rules of engagement and saying I know how things operate here.”

The subsequent rise of modern social media websites like Myspace (2003), Facebook (2004), and Twitter (2006), along with SMS text messaging further cemented LOL’s place in our lives. Around 2007, the first instances of LOLcats and LOLspeak began to surface on 4chan. LOLcats featured images of cats doing funny or adorable things. Accompanying captions bore the style of humans’ projection of how a cat might communicate in English; this playful interpretation filled with grammar errors, misspellings, and a childlike cadence became known as LOLspeak. The cat jokes went viral with I Can Has Cheezburger, which featured a photo of a cat with the phrase in text.

Photo of grey cat with text saying I can has cheezburger in white

I Can Haz Cheezburger

LOLspeak became its own language with accepted spellings, syntax, grammar, and even font choices. This led to academic analyses, and LOLcat becoming a part of the Oxford English Dictionary in December 2014. This further built on the foundation of modern image-based memes that still rule the Internet. In fact, LOL has been inspiring meme-like content for a long time: LOL, Internet (2005), LOL WUT (2006), and LOL Guy (2010). These memes indicated everything from amusing confusion to, “Please don’t take the Internet seriously.”

In 2011, LOL was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as an interjection “used chiefly in electronic communications…to draw attention to a joke or humorous statement, or to express amusement.” It’s also listed as an initialism and noun, but LOL can be a verb too: LOLed (or the more popular lol’d), with lolling being its present participle form. LOL even became the name of a 2012 teen romcom starring Miley Cyrus and Demi Moore.

The phrase LOL is largely associated with the countries where English is a predominate language. However, there are versions of LOL that show up all around the world. People in France use MDR, which stands for “mort de rire” (“died of laughter”). But LOL seems to have global appeal for web users in 2020.

LOL’s Endurance

Why do we love the phrase LOL so much? How has it survived the test of time? If anyone knows the answer, it’s Gretchen McCulloch. The Internet linguist is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. The book takes a deep dive into language we use online, from LOL to emojis to random letter reactions.

Because Internet book cover

Riverhead Books

“There’s all sorts of words that get invented at any given point and only a few of them take over and [become a part of] cultural consciousness,” McCulloch told Nerdist. “A few factors have been proposed by Alan Metcalf in his book Predicting New Words. One of them that I think applies to LOL is that in order for something to really catch on, it shouldn’t seem too clever. It should just seem kind of unremarkable. And so sometimes people come up with really clever acronyms or really clever new words. And everyone’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s really clever.’ Then no one actually uses it because it seems very sort of self-important to use.”

She uses a long-lost Internet word to illustrate her point. Once upon a time, “gr8” was used to replace “great.” But, she says the term died because it’s easier to simply write “great.” However, McCulloch believes LOL thrives because it’s a simple way to express reactions and feelings in written form.

“LOL is very functional,” McCulloch said. “It expresses something that didn’t quite have a way of being expressed before in writing in an obvious sort of way. And there’s a lot of things in what I think of as the ‘LOL family’ that all became more popular in internet writing. Like ‘haha,’ which kind of existed before the Internet but wasn’t popular in the same sort of way. Hahaha, smiley faces, emojis, all of these things express what you’re feeling and thinking about the message you are sending or receiving.”

Who’s Laughing Out Loud Anymore?

Today, LOL suggests far more than just laughter. In fact, when you stick LOL in a text, tweet, or comment, you’re usually not laughing at all. Weissler mused that LOL really isn’t an acronym anymore.

“I don’t even know if LOL is even used in the place of actual laughing anymore. What this makes me think about is the difference between written and spoken language. Not every spoken language has a written component to it. But when you when you think about written language, it tries to accommodate paralinguistic features. What that means is that you want to convey emotion or convey affect, but that’s more difficult to do in writing than it is in spoken language.

And so LOL can be a nice softener. Like, ‘Hey, you were late.’ ‘Oh, so sorry about that LOL.’ LOL can be used as a softener when you’re trying to tell somebody something serious, but you don’t want them to get upset. You can also use lol when you’re kind of writing somebody off like ‘not cool LOL.’ But then it could also mean that it’s completely fine right? And so, you want to lighten the mood. LOL has become this really ambiguous term that maybe even some people might avoid, because has so many meanings that really aren’t about laughing. We have to get end up getting more context to know how people are actually feeling.”

McCulloch said that LOL provides the receiver of a message with important signals about its meaning. It helps us bring the varied meanings behind in-person laughter to text form.

“There’s this tendency for LOL to become a bit aspirational. So, your friend sends something that’s funny and you’re not quite in the mood to laugh. You could send LOL even though you’re not necessarily laughing to say that was funny. And you may feel bad because you wish you were laughing out loud. From there it takes another step. When you are laughing while saying something, what that laughter could be signaling is a source of anti-seriousness. Like, don’t take this message at its face value or too serious. And that gives rise to this third meaning.

According to human estimators who’ve looked at [laughter], we only really laugh 20% of the time at something that’s an actual joke. If you look at how people laugh in conversation, it’s often to acknowledge each other or taper over an awkward moment. You’re laughing to build solidarity with each other. So if you’re laughing while saying, ‘I hate you LOL,’ it actually accomplishes something similar from a social perspective because it doesn’t mean you’re actually finding them funny like a joke. It means you’re communicating some of the same social things that in-person laughter does.”

Social Media Linguistics

Examining the way we communicate and speak informally online is critical to understanding this time period, in the same fashion as the study of hieroglyphics or written letters in the 1700s. That said, McCulloch pointed out that many historical documents and writings were formal with a focus on a very small subset of the population. Their social status made their writings “important” and worth preservation.

However, people wrote casually in diaries and on postcards too, which can be likened to modern blogs and Twitter accounts. This is why linguists like McCulloch, Weissler, and Calhoun exist. They research, document, and track the changes of online speak to see how we continue to evolve. Their findings can perhaps help future generations understand our history through everyday people’s perspectives. Weissler explained how Twitter acts as a vital resource for researching and tracking language trends and words like LOL.

“Twitter is this huge public corpus, essentially, where linguists can do some coding and can look at dates/times and who’s saying what and when things have changed and the frequency across years and months…things like that. So corpus analysis through Twitter is one way that linguists can track the usage of LOL. What is the context in which it’s showing up. What are the ages, genders, or races of people using it?

Spoken language is ephemeral. It exists and it’s gone. And so knowing exactly how people were using it might be a little more difficult. You’ll have to do survey research to ask about people’s recollections. What’s lucky about LOL is that it has been in this written form for so long. It allows researchers to have better access to this data to look at usage over time.”

Calhoun agreed that Twitter and other social media platforms are an excellent resource for noting real-time changes. She also said that many linguists conduct surveys or immerse themselves in a space to observe. But texts and private communication methods are harder to obtain and track.

“Things like WhatsApp, texting, or Facebook Messenger are a bit trickier because you essentially have to get people to donate their language. There are so many distinct sub-fields in linguistics. And, even though they overlap with each other, there are still a lot of things that are unique. But, we can pull from those different sub-fields.”
LOL’s Future in Society
brown scrabble pieces with letters lol on them

Thinkstock/iStock

Despite many additions to the “LOL family” and new acronyms, phrases, and emojis, LOL appears to be here to stay. Sure, Facebook believes LOL died in 2015. However, that proclamation was based on use within their website alone, and a small, specific set of data. Weissler, a young millennial, affirmed that her peers say LOL in conversation. She also believes future generations may use it without knowing its original source.

McCulloch echoed this sentiment, pointing to the word okay/OK as an example. McCulloch explained that O.K. came about through a game nearly 200 years ago as an acronym for the humorous phrase “Oll Korrect” (all correct). Perhaps one day people will write and say LOL with no idea that it used to mean “laughing out loud.”

“I think that LOL and a few others like OMG and WTF are probably the most likely to be like okay and to survive a longer period of time. And maybe people will have forgotten what they stand for or they remember but it’s not important. LOL is probably the most likely to sort of transcend its origins.”

Currently, there tends to be a strict divide between casual/informal language and “professional” language. This is of particular interest to Weissler, who specializes in African-American Vernacular English and other minoritized/marginalized English varieties. Weissler said that all language varieties are valid. The crux of societal beliefs about what is standard or professional is historically established by white people. In fact, both Weissler and Calhoun note that Black linguists are overwhelmingly rare across the board. LOL is certainly a universal term that spans across Internet users from all socioeconomic levels. As our world becomes increasingly virtual, the lines may fall between Internet and “professional” language.

“Language variation is very natural,” Weissler said. “We see it happening everywhere. Just like the human species evolves, language also evolves and we add new words to the dictionary all the time. I do think in the future it’s possible that certain terms from Internet slang can permeate into the professional world. And I think the only things that will really block that from happening are issues of socioeconomic division, racism, and other prejudices.”

Weissler explained the ramifications of these blockades on language. “One of the biggest issues in general is who has the right to say what. A Black person in the future who uses Internet slang in a professional setting may not get the same treatment as a white person saying it. I think there will still be certain gatekeeping and barriers that will always kind of put a limit on who can say what and that’s the bigger overarching issues we need to bring awareness to.”

fake text message going out to boss

ifaketextmessage.com

Calhoun believes the future use of LOL in a professional sense is, like other things, specific to the office or corporate culture. The way that employees communicate will play a role in how they speak on each other through media. Moreover, the lines between casual and “professional” languages will remain for one reason—social hierarchy. Calhoun explained:

“In academic setting or whatever it may be, if the majority of people are young or relatively young there may be more flexibility and fluid understanding of what is ‘professional’ language. Now a lot of offices will use Slack or G-chat or some sort of informal way of communicating as opposed to email. And I think that’s still communicating in a professional setting. Those spaces might become more flexible on what’s seen as “acceptable” language.

Personally, I think that the lines will always be there because people are very interested in maintaining the social hierarchies that are created by deeming certain language ‘professional’ and another language ‘inappropriate.’ That’s a power thing right? People at the top can say, ‘The way I talk is professional so everyone else needs to speak, text, and email like me.’ People are very invested in maintaining the language of older white middle/upper class male speakers who were once the main people in these spaces. In an ideal world we could eventually get to a place where you could say LOL in an email and no one will bat an eyelash.”

LOL’s journey—dawning in small online boards, ultimately becoming a complex phrase spanning generations—is a story worth knowing. This story offers a look into how language spreads, shifts, and changes on a planet that’s more connected than ever thanks to the Internet. Most importantly, LOL affirms that all forms of language are important, valuable, interesting, and have a place in shaping the story of humanity. Long live LOL and all its different meanings.

Featured Image: Thinkstock/iStock