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March 11, 2011

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To LOL, or not LOL? That is the question

LINGUISTS today are studying the big issues, such as the evolution of LOL and whether it's still valid and brevity at its finest or whether it's meaningless and overused. Whatever the many LOL-bashers say, LOL is here to stay. Martha Irvine : - )

There was a time when LOL - "laughing out loud" - was so simple. If I thought something in a casual online conversation was funny, I typed it. If I wanted to let someone know I was kidding in an e-mail or an instant message, same.

I might even have felt a little cool, using inside lingo that, at one time, was exclusive to the online world. (You know I am not the only one who thought so.)

Today, though, I am sensing a shift, even in my own thoughts, about LOL. Certainly, it is as ubiquitous as ever. Just search for it on Twitter or Facebook to see how often people use it. Not exactly deep and meaningful stuff, mind you, but there sure is a lot of it.

Perhaps that is why, at least in some circles, LOL has lost its cachet. And at its worst, it is making people a little cranky.

It is overused and meaningless, they say. It "epitomizes lazy, and makes people a liar," says Seth Ginsburg, a 29-year-old New Yorker. "Are they really laughing out loud?"

Comedian Demetri Martin has joked that he uses "LTMQ - laughing to myself quietly."

"It's more honest," he says.

I laugh every time I hear that joke - out loud, no less - because I too have this internal debate: I tell myself that I will type LOL only if I'm really "LOL-ing."

But I fail, regularly. It is just too easy to type (two keys, one finger or a thumb, if it is a cell phone), too convenient a response.

Sure, there are LOL haters out there, seemingly more all the time. But for better or worse, this modern-day acronym has become ingrained in our lexicon and, for some, has evolved in meaning.

"It's brevity at its finest, and it gets a point across," says 25-year-old Arzi Rachman, another New Yorker.

Try as some might, LOL will not be easily shaken.

The origins of this three-letter acronym, in its current form, are not easy to pin down. Most likely, it was a gamer or hacker who first used LOL (or "lol") on an electronic message board, probably sometime in the 1980s. Its use became more common on early Internet services such as CompuServe and Netcom. By the mid-1990s, when even more people joined America Online, the term LOL hit the mainstream in chat rooms and in instant messaging.

It morphed, as well. If you thought something was really, really funny, for instance, you might type ROFL - "rolling on the floor laughing" - or LMAO - "laughing my (you know what) off."

By 2004, fatigue was setting in. LOL was added to the "List of Words to Be Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness," updated each year at Lake Superior State University in Michigan.

Regardless, LOL went forth and multiplied and has since seeped into spoken language.

"At times, I do say LOL," says Rachman, a college student, "usually to accentuate sarcasm, or something along those lines."

Of course, when speaking of text conversations, one cannot forget the sideways smiley - :-) - which you might call LOL's older cousin.

Scott Fahlman, a research professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, often gets credit for first suggesting that emoticon nearly 30 years ago. His fellow academics quickly embraced it and ushered in its everyday online use.

The sideways smiley has gotten bashed too - it's been called the equivalent of "i's" dotted with hearts.

But asked if he has ever used LOL, Fahlman will tell you, "Nope." He draws the line. "It sort of strikes me as kind of - this is going to sound sexist - a teenage girl thing," he says, "a high school thing."

But is that really true? Does the use of LOL really fall along generational lines? Was the implication that some of us are too old to use LOL?

"One of the things that's pretty clear - whether LOL is in or passe - it depends on your social circle," says Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University who wrote the book "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World."

As more people of all ages forge online lives, those social circles may be less divided by generation, though not completely.

In surveying college students about their use of online or texted terms, for example, Baron has noticed a difference in the way they use LOL. For them, it is often used as a simple acknowledgment that may have nothing to do with laughter. Instead, LOL might mean "oh," "got it," "heard you" or "really?"

That use might bother some people; Baron also has colleagues who scold her when she does not correct students who greet her with a "hey!"

But she says that kind of evolution in language happens all the time. Sometimes, it's for practical reasons or convenience. Other times, it simply is a style or trend.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries in England, Baron notes, it was commonplace to sign a letter using "Yr Hum Serv," an abbreviation for "Your Humble Servant."

"Everybody knew what that meant," she says. "It was just convention."

Today, it is happening on Twitter with "hash tags" - the number symbol. Originally meant to mark terms or events that users may search for, people have started using hash tags to highlight the equivalent of a funny or snarky side comment. That use has since transferred to Facebook, where hash tags do not even apply.

"It's all part of marking your territory," Baron says. "People mark it linguistically. They mark it by dress. They mark it by how many earrings they have in their ears - you name it."

Lake Superior State University 2011 List of Banished Words


It refers to the spreading of items on the Internet.


More than one nominator says the use of 'epic' has become an epic annoyance.


Whether it is someone tripping, a car accident, a costumed character scaring the living daylights out a kid, or just a poor choice in fashion, it drives people thinking anything that is a mistake is a "fail."


This buzzword is served up with a heaping of cliché factor and a side order of irritation. The lemmings from cable-TV cooking, whatever design and fashion shows keep dishing it out.


A point at which you understand something or something becomes clearer.


Simply "history," or, "story."


Best Friends Forever.


A phrase directed at men deemed overused, bullying and sexist.


Right-wing female politicians.


Adding this word to the English language simply because a part-time politician lacks a spell checker on her cell phone is an action that needs to be repudiated.


Every political speech refers to the "American" people as if simply saying "Americans" (or "people") is not enough.


A watered-down version of "what I just said" or "intended to say."


The use of the websites as verbs causes some deep problems. The trend can only get worse, like 'I'm going to Twitter a few people, then Yahoo the movie listings and maybe Amazon a book or two."


It's an absurdity followed by a redundancy.


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