A Romney adviser criticized the Obama campaign on Friday for selling T-shirts emblazoned with the abbreviation BFD—a reference to Vice President Biden’s description of health care reform as a “big fucking deal.” BFD has lately been making the rounds on Twitter, but what are the chances it will stick around as long as abbreviations like LOL or OMG?
Not good. Scholars are still working out why some abbreviations fizzle while others make a transition from insiders’ jargon to broad acceptance. Linguist Allan Metcalf has developed a handy scale to forecast a neologism’s chances of becoming a long-term part of the language. He assigns the expression a score of 0, 1, or 2 in each of five categories: frequency of use, unobtrusiveness, diversity of users, ability to generate related neologisms, and endurance of the concept it describes. (The chat room favorite RTFM—read the fucking manual—has withered largely because electronics no longer come with thick instruction manuals.)
Metcalf cautions that forecasting BFD’s prospects may be premature, but the early signs are not promising. He gives the abbreviation one point for frequency and one point for unobtrusiveness. (Abbreviations are usually somewhat obtrusive when used in a sentence.) It scores zero for diversity of users because it’s mostly limited to newshounds and fervent Obama supporters. The term gets no versatility points, unlike LOL, which has spawned such gems as lolcano and lolcats. Endurance of the concept is a bit tricky. BFD has been in use for many years, but it didn’t get a lot of attention before the VP popularized it 2010. If BFD stays linked to the health care reform bill, its life could be very short indeed. If, however, people begin referring to final exams, playoff football games, and their parents’ divorces as BFDs, then it will last. Metcalf splits the difference at this stage, assigning it one point. That’s a total of three points, which means the expression’s newfound fame may not even survive the 2012 election.
The other problem for BFD is that it didn’t follow the developmental model of other successful neologisms, which usually incubate among an identifiable clique of devoted insiders before entering the broader public conversation. LOL, for example, was limited to the Canadian online bulletin board Viewline in the mid-1980s before the participants spread the expression to General Electric’s much larger GEnie system. Other popular expressions, like TTYL (“talk to you later”), BRB (“be right back”), and ROFL (“rolling on the floor laughing”), started in chat rooms, where jargon-loving computing enthusiasts created and refined their abbreviations.*
Although computers offer a new medium for popularizing acronyms, the process hasn’t changed much in two centuries. A group of newspaper editors employed the expression OK—a jokey misspelling of “all correct”—in 1839, at first accompanied by an explanation of its meaning. The term caught on among the general public a year later, when supporters of presidential candidate Martin “Old Kinderhook” Van Buren adopted the phrase “Old Kinderhook is OK.”
BFD has one thing going for it—its obvious potential for ironic use. In past decades, people have typically adopted slang terms because they want to associate themselves with the people who already use them. Recently, however, linguists have observed increasing irony in the adoption of slang. Youngsters may use phrases like LOL—and, eventually, BFD—as a send-up of the parents who use the term.
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Explainer thanks Allan Metcalf of MacMurray College, author of OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word, Rebecca Starr of Carnegie Mellon University, and Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus.
Correction, July 6, 2012: The letters in the acronym TTYL were originally transposed. (Return to the corrected sentence.)