"Lmao" and "haha / ha / ha! hahaha" will be discussed at a later date, but today we're focusing on the granddaddy of text-speak, the ever-useful "lol."
Sometime around 2015, I started ending most of my text messages with "lol."
Since it's almost 2020, it's time to ask myself why I haven't been able to stop.
In reflecting on my reliance on "lol," I've traced its roots to my lifelong sense of insecurity and social anxiety. This wasn't created by the Internet—I spent a lot of time in my pre-social media youth (and too much of my adult life) worrying about what others think, or trying not to care.
Texting hasn't helped. In fact, texting is my least favorite form of digital messaging, and it often makes me even more uncomfortable than personal interactions. Texting crystallizes my social anxiety, making it present and unavoidable, unless I actively decide to disengage from my phone. Perpetually, there's someone waiting to be responded to or who I'm waiting for a response from, or some conversation I'm supposed to know how to continue or reignite in a perfectly cavalier, laid-back yet considerate fashion. Though I write for a living, I've never really been fluent in the art of casual human small talk, and that has translated into my digital communications.
When "lol" appeared in my life (a crush of mine had a tendency to use it), it quickly became a code word that was and is everything I want to imply but don't know how to say in a text. When I end a message with "lol," it means, I don't take myself too seriously, and neither should you, and, I have a healthy, cheerful, cool and chill attitude towards this conversation and to life, and if you want to end this conversation and never speak to me again, I would understand!
Usually, none of those things is entirely true, but the person I'm talking to doesn't need to know that. "Lol" adds a flicker of sarcasm, a kind of wink. It's less cheery than ":)" and less peppy than "!," less effortful than an emoji (though I do love those), more open and friendly than "…" and far less vitriolic than the period-free cold stop.
On the other hand, emails and status updates are much more formal and easy to intuit. You can end emails with "Best, ____," and call it a day. The artifice is explicit, and no one is pretending that the conversation could go on all night. When we email, there's an inherent understanding that we all want to get back to whatever it is we do outside of performing formal interactions with people we don't really want to be around or don't feel comfortable with.
But you can't end a text message with a cordial "Sincerely" or a "Thanks." For me, texting is so stressful, in part, because it's basically distilled small talk, and it's oddly difficult to end a conversation without ghosting or lying; and, having been on the receiving end of both of those things, I know that neither is a kind thing to do to someone. Also, texts are so easily misinterpreted; it's so easy for them to come off as cold or callous when they're supposed to be the opposite.
All this can be fixed by "lol." In terms of linguistic devices, it's actually quite elegant, a catch-all that does large amounts of emotional labor for a little palindrome. This isn't an accident—it's just indicative of language's ability to become an arbiter of nuance and implication instead of a fixed code. According to linguist John McWhorter, "If you look at the LOLs from the perspective of a geeky linguist looking for structure, what the LOLs are, are particles which indicate that the speaker – so to speak – and the addressee are sharing a certain context of interpretation, i.e., you know what this nasty day is like; You know what it's like being in the library. That is a piece of grammar."
How 'LOL' Changed the Way We Talk www.youtube.com
The definition of "lol" has changed over the years due to its prominence in texting, writes McWhorter, coming to act as a stand-in for casual laughter and a symbol of nuance and empathy. "It used to be that if you were going to write in any real way beyond the personal letter, there were all these rules you were afraid you were breaking—and you probably were," he continues. "It wasn't a comfortable form. You can write comfortably now."
That's a fairly positive interpretation, and I would imagine that Mr. McWhorter is pretty fun at parties, but I'm not quite so optimistic about why we all love "lol" so much. In addition to being a grammatical unicorn, "lol" is, perhaps, a kind of shield against reality.
Like iPhones, a face tattoo, a trenchcoat, or a clown nose, maybe "lol" is a buffer against the truth.
In some ways, "lol" may be an early acronym for the post-ironic discourse that millennials and digital natives have become reliant on. Like a meme about politics or mental illness, perhaps "lol" is a way of communicating information while remaining self-deprecating and un-self-serious, which successfully circumvents the need to acknowledge that a change must be made.
And maybe we do need these kinds of buffers in order to exist in today's world of apocalyptic headlines and cutthroat capitalism. We need our casual laughs and our inside jokes, just like we need our coffee and our alerts and notifications that blink like signifiers of solidarity, albeit fractured through a screen. Perhaps "lol" functions similarly to Tweets, memes, and Tik Toks—all of which are becoming more and more sophisticated at helping us distance ourselves from reality, thereby allowing us to engage with the people and the world around us at lightning speed.
So, should I stop using "lol" or lean in further? Should we continue using the Internet while knowing it brainwashes us and tracks our information (but also opens our minds to new voices we may never have otherwise heard), or should I abscond entirely and move to a permaculture cabin in the woods? Friends, this is all pretty spooky imo lol. I'm not actually laughing, but you knew that.
I’ve been texting since the 5th grade and still haven’t figured out if I’m a “haha” “lol” or “lmao” kinda guy— walt brandt (@walt brandt)1571164699.0
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Cats are polarizing. Non-cat people vehemently despise the entire species, readily listing the wrongs done to them and loved ones by felines. Meanwhile, cat people feel just as strongly, and are ready to tell you all the ways their cat is smarter, better, prettier, and more fun to be around than you'll ever be. But whether you love them or hate them, you have to admit there isn't anything much better than a funny cat video. So you don't have to waste your time filtering all the non-cat content out of your newsfeed, we've compiled a list of our favorite funny cat videos.
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The meanings of words have never been permanent. If they were, then you could still be punished for obscenity if you said "f**k* or "s**t" in public.
What part of civilized society haven't millennials ruined—with all their student debt, financial barriers to homeownership, and uniquely high rates of depression and anxiety?
Between Baby Boomers' conviction that millennials are the worst generation to date and contradicting data that millennial life is harder than it was for prior generations, both evaluations are overstated. The reality is that those born between 1981 and 1996 have, for the most part, wreaked the same havoc on society as any generation, from shifting the political climate to interrupting established industries. They just happen to coincide with the digital age, which has accelerated the rates of change.
When it comes to how millennials communicate, social media has created a new language—sure, literally. Sociolinguists are fascinated with the new patterns of language used by Millennials, both spoken and written. Whether you think millennials are causing the "Destruction of Civilization" or just accept humanity's boring old "linguistic shift, here's a sample of how words have changed to reflect modern views on relationships, gender roles, and technology's power to control our lives.
My master’s was in sociolinguistics, and I absolutely see this as true. https://t.co/lbHwjSQPYj— Deanna Hoak (@Deanna Hoak)1520131827.0
As millennials question the use of outdated labels, they propose a bevy of new ones. When it comes to relationships, "partner" has replaced "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" and even "wife" and "husband." According to Google Trends, "my partner" is more than eight times more popular today than it was 15 years ago. The word is preferred for its genderless nature and implied equality. Additionally, it carries more seriousness than the juvenile titles of "boy/girlfriend," which is unique for committed couples in long-term relationships who choose not to marry. In fact, millennials increasingly find the institution "dated" and, if they do marry, they marry later in life than previous generations.
Contrary to popular belief, the figurative use of "literally" actually dates back to the 1700s. It was not in popular usage until the early 1900s, when writers like Ambrose Bierce called its hyperbolic context "intolerable"—and he didn't have to live in the age of the Kardashians. Oxford English Dictionary's definition includes the colloquial use "to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: 'virtually, as good as'; (also) 'completely, utterly, absolutely'."
Still, millennials are responsible for the over-use of the word. While it's only natural to be frustrated with a word so versatile that its meaning contradicts itself, such radical changes in a word's connotation are part of the age-old pattern of linguistic innovation. A whole generation twisting a word's meaning into its opposite is not new or distinctly millennial, but it is, now more than ever, painfully obvious to hear in our day-to-day conversations.
Illustration: Nadezda_Grapes/iStock/Getty Images Plus
"Relatability" isn't a word, but we're doomed to pretend that it is for the foreseeable future, and all because millennials watch too much TV. Prior to about 2010, it wasn't common to use "relatable" to indicate how well you identify with a character or situation. Rather, the word's core meaning describes whether a thing is capable of being told (like relating a story) or whether it shares common features with something else.
In The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead criticizes "The Scourge of Relatability" as a reflection of how millennials treat art and media. As a demographic, millennials expect art to be a mirror of their own lives (which by itself is natural), but the inflated significance of "relatability" suggests that people aren't willing to look closely at art—to work to find connections to it. Mead writes, "But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It's a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of 'relatable.'"
With the public's trust in the government near all-time lows, who can blame millennials for being ultra-concerned with evidence and proof? As consumers, most millennials and Gen-Zers don't trust brands' motivations or business ethics, nor do they trust major social institutions like religion or universities. And in their private lives, millennials struggle to build trusting relationships thanks to social media and the casualness of dating apps.
So the figurative use of "receipts" to indicate evidence that reveals someone's deception or hypocrisy is an accurate reflection of millennials' trust issues. Slate traces the term to Whitney Houston's erratic 2002 interview when she denied having a drug habit and demanded, "I wanna see the receipts." The usage took off online among bloggers and Internet trolls, but today it fits neatly into the culture of calling people out on their history of prejudiced or contradictory comments.
"Ironic"The word itself is far more common than it was even 10 years ago, according to Google Trends. But Alanis Morissette's quoted-to-death song is no longer the worst misuse of the word. With a slippery definition and several sub-types of "irony," confusion is more or less understandable, but millennials taking creative liberties with the word only removes it further from its meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary accounts for its use to describe "a situation, event, or outcome: cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations; of the nature of an irony.
So, yes, sarcastically telling your friend that his neon bucket hat looks amazing is verbal irony. An entire sitcom plot surrounding a miscommunication that you're aware of but the characters aren't is dramatic irony. A handful of other less common types of irony float around, like the historical irony of inventors who are killed by their own inventions. But no, getting run over by a bicyclist on the same day you age out of your parents' health insurance plan isn't irony: that's just shit luck. Now, getting run over by a bicyclist on the same day you say people who get hit by bicyclists are dumbasses: that's good irony. Also, watch out for bicyclists.
In truth, every generation changes the rules of accepted vernacular. For better or worse, language is being forever altered by the millennial generation—actually, just kidding; the meanings of words have never been permanent. If they were, then English grammar would actually make sense, "ghoti" would be pronounced "fish," and you would still be punished for obscenity for saying "f*ck" or "sh*t" in public. F*ck that.
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