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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 …