Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

From LOL to lulz to lolxxx

In the Malaysia Star you’ll find my latest in a series of columns in which I try to bring to light interesting slang for a non-Western audience whose English skills range from nascent to fluent.

From my desk—at which sits someone who has been on the Internet since 1992 and was a patron of dial-up computer bulletin board systems for years before that—language change on the Internet is a beautiful thing.

You probably know LOL (“laugh or laughing out loud”), which is now included in several mainstream dictionaries. It is used as a bit of interjected paralinguistic restitution, a way of saying “this strikes me as humorous” in text where, if you were speaking, you might chuckle, giggle, or laugh.

Not included in any mainstream dictionary, however, is the five-year-old word (a word that is five years old, not a word used by five-year-olds) lulz, which derives from LOL (also written in lowercase: lol).

LOL, when spoken aloud—and it is spoken aloud outside of cellular (mobile) telephone commercials, usually sarcastically or ironically—is usually rendered something like “lall” or “loll” or “lull”.

As a result, the online variant lulz (invariably plural) has appeared, undergoing not only an orthographic shift (the spelling has changed) but a semantic shift (the meaning has changed). It means, more or less, “cheap laughs” or, better, laffs.

Laffs (also usually plural) itself is a shift away from “laughs” in spelling and meaning. It is almost the same as yuks.

Both words, despite the dictionary definition of yuks as “loud, hearty laughs”, in show business usually mean “false or forced laughter” or “cheap laughter”. These are the kind of laughs you get when everyone has heard a joke before, when the humour is broad and obvious, and when the audience can see the punchlines coming from a mile a way (when they knew what the funny part of the joke would be).

“Laffs” also seems to be unaccounted for in mainstream dictionaries, even though it is at least 50 years old. Neither laffs nor yuks are from the online lexicon, but I thought the tangent worth making. Back to online language.

LOL has gone another way, too: lollerskates. It’s used in place of LOL, usually satirically or ironically. That is, the person will write something, and then where others might earnestly and unthinkingly put LOL to indicate that the preceding text is supposed to be funny, the writer will put lollerskates instead. It’s a mix of LOL plus the word rollerskates and it means, more or less, “laughing out loud a lot”.

In Singapore and other nearby English-speaking parts of Asia, one might write lolx to indicate lots of laughs. The ‘x’ serves as a multiplier: lolxxxx means more laughs than lolx.

Another part of the older Internet lexicon, OMG, too, has undergone a transformation. It originally meant “Oh, my God!” and was used as an exclamation of surprise or delight.

Now its ironic and sarcastic uses far outweigh the earnest and unironic ones. It’s also given rise to ZOMG.

ZOMG is probably spelled that way because users reaching for the shift key on the left side of the keyboard miss and type Z, though one wonders if it wouldn’t be more appropriately rendered as zomg – if you miss the shift key, then nothing would be capitalised, right?

In any case, ZOMG is now a word in its own right. It expresses emphasis and excitement, in a knowing, intentionally overboard fashion.

Another word that has been transformed is “the”. It’s been mistyped so often as “teh” that teh has taken on a life of its own. It’s used for emphasis and it’s used in an intentionally different way than “the”.

For example, if something is very cool (meaning great, good), you might write, “It’s teh cool!” Teh suck, as another example, is a way of saying, “That’s really bad.”

“Teh” serves as an emphatic, a word which, like very, increases the strength of whatever other words it modifies. Teh can be pronounced as “tay”, but among the few people I know who pronounce it, it’s always said as “tuh”.

Note my comments about “knowing”, “irony,” and “sarcasm” above. Those who use such language are aware of how it might look to others. Of course they are.

They know that their writing might seem childish, or that they might seem to be clueless (out of touch with common rules of good conduct or with what is really happening), or that they may appear pretentious or as if they are trying too hard to be cool.

As a result, they tend to be very careful with such language, and a lot of times, they’ll use it in such a way as to indicate to the reader that they know very well that such language is loaded (meaning, it has the potential to cause problems). They want to be understood. They also don’t want to be seen as trying to artificially force a new word to become popular, which is, contradictorily, almost surely a perfect way to make it unpopular.

At the same time, they know that these words have uses. Paralinguistic restitution is one part of it. They restore to the written language a flavour that is easier to indicate in the spoken language. They also allow for meta-commentary, in which you can not only literally mean “that is funny” but you can also kind of poke fun at yourself for it, all in a single word: lulz.

When you see such slang online, just assume that the writer knows everything you know about the word and assume they intended the funniest, kindest meanings possible. You’ll find it all the more enjoyable.

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Grant Barrett