Happy 25th Birthday to LOL

A Blog About Language
May 23 2014 4:48 PM

Happy 25th Birthday to LOL

lol_25th_birthday

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the first known usage of LOL for "laughing out loud” (the "lots of love" interpretation, incidentally, is quite a bit older). The linguist Ben Zimmer notes that the earliest citation is from the May 1989 issue of a newsletter called Fidonet and is still available online, in all its ASCII'd glory:

screen_shot_20140522_at_5.43.50_pm

Several terms on the original list, such as BTW, BRB, or even AFK, have stuck around, while others, including LMTO (laughing my tush off) and RAO (rolling all over), have persisted in slightly modified form. But some, LTNT (long time no type), and WLCM (welcome), have long ago faded into obscurity. In any case, the fact that these abbreviations appear as part of a larger list of general online shorthand suggests that they all predate the newsletter. And as for LOL in particular, a man named Wayne Pearson says he remembers exactly how that one was coined.

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Pearson claims that it was he who invented LOL in the early to mid 1980s on a Canadian bulletin board system, or BBS, called Viewline, where it quickly caught on and spread as Viewline users got free accounts on the larger chatroom service GEnie:

LOL was first coined on a BBS called Viewline in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in the early-to-mid-80s. A friend of mine who went by Sprout (and I believe he still does) had said something so funny in the teleconference room that I found myself truly laughing out loud, echoing off the walls of my kitchen. That's when "LOL" was first used.

We of course had ways of portraying amusement in chat rooms before that (>grin< >laugh< *smile*) and the gamut of smiley faces, but I felt that none of them really got across the fact that the other person just made you feel foolish by laughing out loud in a room all by yourself (or worse, with other family members in another room, thinking you quite odd!)

Unfortunately, Pearson didn't keep any records of his purported first use of the term, so we can be sure of only 25 candles on the LOL birthday cake:

If I had any idea that such a thing would spread, I would have saved the original conversation that led to the acronym's inception. Alas, I don't even recall what was so funny! While I can picture in my mind where I was when it happened, I can't narrow the time down any further.

Whatever you think of Pearson’s account, it must have been a pretty good joke that resulted in his laughter "echoing off the walls" of his home. These days, I’d argue that LOL (commonly without caps) barely indicates an internal, silent chuckle, never mind an uproarious, audible guffaw. In fact, as far back as 2001 the linguist David Crystal asked rhetorically, "How many people are actually 'laughing out loud' when they send LOL?" (If anyone can find older such expressions of skepticism, do let us know!) As the linguist John McWhorter now describes LOL: "What began as signifying laughter morphed into easing tension and creating a sense of equality." In other words, the abbreviation has evolved to relate empathy rather than hilarity.

So what will happen to LOL in the next 25 years? Will we completely abandon it in favor of younger, hipper abbreviations, or is it part of our language for the long-term? (The LOLcat, after all, has already given way to doge.) Will it have a midlife crisis, then obsolesce and start relying on its children to fix its tech problems? It should be so lucky. Remember ODM (on de move)? I thought so.

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and the editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog. She has a master's in linguistics from McGill University and blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.

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