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On the evening of April 18, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got a text from a friend, Dias Kadyrbayev, telling him about something kind of funny. The FBI had just released photos of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, the friend said, and one of them looked just like Dzhokhar. According to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday against Kadyrbayev—who, along with two other friends of the younger Tsarnaev brother, is being charged with concealing evidence in the case—Dzhokhar responded to the news with a bit of universal shorthand: lol.
It’s telling that the legal complaint doesn’t pause to define lol. Neither does the New York Times story describing the charges. Even newspaper reporters and government lawyers know that defining lol is pretty lol-worthy circa 2013, when everyone everywhere knows what lol means. (Well, almost everyone: Public-radio listeners apparently still need handholding, as NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston did take a moment to explain lol.) It seems that few people even bother to Google lol at this point—fans of the multiplayer game League of Legends now account for the top 10 lol-related search terms. Urban Dictionary, the Web’s preeminent chronicler of slang, also assumes that nobody would look up lol. Its top definition for the acronym is a joke, claiming that lol is an abbreviation of the name Laurence.
And yet, despite its creeping universality, I was surprised that, in a moment of crisis, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reflexively texted lol. Everything I’ve read about Dzhokhar suggests that he had a finely tuned sense of social status, and was keenly aware of the ways in which language and brand affiliation affected how he was perceived. And in this case, he seems to have been using lol earnestly, as a way to indicate that his friend’s suggestion was totally ridiculous. You’re saying that I look like one of the Boston bombers? Lol.
Maybe I’m naïve or just haven’t had enough exposure to teenagers, but I’ve been under the impression that nobody used lol at this point without first coating it with a heavy layer of irony. Schoolmarms have been out to get lol since the minute it was invented, but I’d also thought it had just gone out of fashion. Somewhere around the late 1990s, I believed, lol went from being an acceptable online shorthand for signaling amusement to its opposite—a term that people who had just come online would use to show how well they understood the Internet (or, as they’d have called it, “cyberspace”), and in so doing actually show that they didn’t understand anything.
But Dzhokhar’s text got me wondering. I asked my Slate colleagues and people on Twitter if his use of lol was typical. Is it really a common usage among young people? Most importantly, should we sneer at lol? Should I be using lol?
It turns out I was wrong—LOL! To my surprise, my investigation revealed that lol is fine. Lol is better than fine, actually—it’s genuinely useful, and in many modern social situations, it’s the best thing to say (or, that is, to write; as I’ll explain below, we should still frown on people using lol in speech).
From now on, I’m going to start using lol unapologetically, and if you aren’t already, you should too. We ought to celebrate lol as a succinct, universally recognized way to express emotion in text-heavy media—emails, IMs, texts, tweets, and the like—that are otherwise cold and unemotional. Like the best slang, lol is endlessly flexible: Depending on context, it can stand in for a wide range of emotions, from amusement to pity to confusion. For instance, it’s a handy way to temper the literal meaning of an otherwise douchey statement: Can’t go to prom with you, asking Greg, lol. It’s also a way of saying nothing while appearing to say something—the textual equivalent of laughing something off. That’s how Dzhokhar was using it. In three letters, he got across what must have been a fairly complex emotion: It’s funny that you think I’m a terrorist, and notice that I’m not denying it, but really, wouldn’t it be surprising to you if I were a terrorist—and maybe I’m even a little bit sorry about what you’re going to find out about me …
Yes, I’m likely reading too much into Dzhokhar’s lol. But I do think he was trying to express something fairly complex. That’s because, as the linguist John McWhorter explains, lol is so flexible that it no longer means anything literal, and instead has become a functional, grammatical part of casual written speech. In the same way that the suffix -ed indicates that you’re speaking about the past, lol shows “basic empathy” between texters, McWhorter argues.
There are other ways to get across similar feelings. You could use an emoticon or emoji. You could type “haha.” Or you could use one or many English adjectives. But in most chat situations, lol is superior to these alternatives. It’s shorter than English adjectives and haha (which, of course, is not any less silly than lol), and it’s less typographically demanding than :). (Smileys require the extended keyboard on a touchscreen phone.) It’s also an easy way to convey tone, which so often gets misinterpreted in written communication. (This also explains the rise of the exclamation point in the email!! Make it stop!!)
The other great thing about lol is that its acceptability spans generations and social contexts. Teenagers use it, and people my parents’ age also seem to reach for it without regret. It doesn’t mark you as a nerd, jock, or freak; it’s something everyone can write freely without signaling any social association (in this way, it’s like cool). There is one exception: The only group that does have hang-ups about lol is my generation—people whose experience with lol is colored by its association with AOL noobs, and who seem to have missed its proliferation among the rest of the culture. When someone writes lol to me, I either scoff or wonder if that person could be using it ironically, as a kind of in-joke. I usually can’t figure it out. To avoid such confusion, I never, ever wrote lol.
But now that I think about it, this is silly. Almost everyone in America has the Internet now; any fear you might harbor about looking like a noob is ridiculously passé. If everyone else is fine with lol, why should I continue to scorn it?
There are a few other common objections to lol. There’s the schoolmarm one—lol is slang, and it’s dangerous to encourage kids to write slang. But that’s not an indictment of lol specifically, just a general warning against committing slang terms to text. And, as McWhorter points out, it’s a misguided warning. Even though we’re expressing ourselves through text, when we’re typing out text messages or emails or IMs, we aren’t really writing—we’re talking. And slang has always played an important part in conversation. Unless you’re opposed to using any slang at any time, there’s no specific reason to single out text slang like lol. The only rationale opponents of text slang offer is that kids might get confused and write things like lol in term papers and cover letters. I don’t buy that this will happen—but if it does, so what? They’ll quickly learn not to do that. (Dictionaries that define lol—such as the Oxford English Dictionary, which added it in 2011—are clear that it’s a colloquial.)
Finally, there’s the literalist objection to lol, rofl, et al. These terms, opponents say, are almost always dishonest—if people were really laughing out loud at the rate that they’re typing lol, the Earth would be an unlivably mirthful place. This is a weird one. In casual conversation we use loads of expressions that we don’t mean literally—“it cost me an arm and a leg,” “he’s off his rocker,” “hold the phone.” When you hear someone say one of these idioms, you never think he’s speaking literally. So why do some people throw a fit if you use lol to mean you’re just slightly amused? I suspect the problem is lol’s novelty, and the fact that it’s in an initialiasm. When you see the word, most of us still remember that it’s shorthand for a longer phrase. At some point, if lol’s rise continues unabated, we’ll all forget the phrase and think of lol as a standalone word. At that point no one will wonder whether you’re really, truly laughing out loud.
I’m still leery of using the word lol in speech, though. That’s because when you’re talking to someone rather than typing, you have many better ways of expressing emotion—tone of voice, body language, the entirety of the language. When you say lol—whether you pronounce it EL-OH-EL or LAWL—it feels unnatural, like you’re calling attention to texting when you should be talking.
This is true of many expressions born online. Lol, rotfl, brb, imho—they all belong on the page. The other day I heard someone say the word sadface in conversation, and I must confess that I threw up a little in my mouth. Lol!