Me: dummy text dummy text lol
Friend: lol something about my friend’s life here
Me: lol yeah
Friend: dummy text dummy text
So go my Gchats.
Recently, while chatting a friend from college, I had just hit enter on another lol when my boyfriend panned, “But you’re not really laughing out loud.” Maybe he was just giving me a hard time. But he was right: I wasn’t laughing out loud. I wasn’t even smiling. And that’s not the point.
As a 20-something whose conversation skills were bred on AIM (screenname: Ladybug62488) and blossomed in Facebook chat, texting/BBM and Gchat, I don’t know what communication would be like without the internet. I tend to prefer texting over calling, and people who don’t have Gmail infuriate me. So when someone who can remember life before the internet — my boyfriend is 12 years older — points out that I use lol even when I’m not laughing out loud, I feel like I’m living in that fair ride, the Kamikaze. The one with two rotating arms that swing past each other, like two pendulums operating from the same center but in different planes. I’m in the car at the end of one arm, and he’s in the other.
This gives me feelings of both pride (repping the internet generation, y’all) and embarrassment (I’m hopelessly young and inexperienced, and I know nothing of the Land Before Time where true human connection reigned). I guess this may all be a roundabout way of saying, “I think I say lol too much lol.” To which you might reply, “Yes, you do.” And also maybe, “Why are you writing this?”
But then again, since the internet is pretty much how we communicate these days, isn’t it interesting how useful lol is for communicating tone, mood and meaning through chat?
In 2008, linguistics expert David Crystal, a professor at Bangor University, defended lol and other examples of txt spk in Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, arguing that it’s an “urban myth” that texting is ruining the language skills of generations to come. If anything, it’s improving them:
I believe that any form of writing exercise is good for you. I also believe that any form of tuition which helps develop your awareness of the different properties, styles, and effects of writing is good for you. It helps you become a better reader, more sensitive to nuance, and a better writer, more sensitive to audience. Texting language is no different from other innovative forms of written expression that have emerged in the past. It is a type of language whose communicative strengths and weaknesses need to be appreciated.
If any form of writing is good for you, then I am like, so good. And so are you, probably. We are writing more than ever, even if just in short spurts. According to CTIA, a wireless industry group, we send 2.3 trillion texts a year. Then you have to add instant messages, email and posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter. That’s a lot of conversations happening electronically. And without lol, it would be really hard to navigate a conversation about well, anything, over these channels.
For example, when I type (say?) lol, I’m often signaling to the other person that I’m about to tell them something light or amusing. In real life, my tone of voice would serve this purpose. Other times I’m just adding the lol to take the edge off. A friend recently texted me: “i’m deciding sutton foster is your doppelganger.” I didn’t recognize the name, so I tapped back: “Lol who is that?” which is wayyyy different than just “Who is that?” The lol adds playfulness. It signals friendliness and amusement. The latter feels too venomous, too much like it could be followed with “she spat” if someone were writing it in dialogue. I also use lol simply to fill silence, so the person I’m chatting with knows I approve of what they’re saying (even if it’s not funny), and I’m about to type an appropriate response that may take a second.
I’ve actually attempted to find a substitute that doesn’t feel contrived. I tried replacing lols with emoticons or hahas. I also tried spelling it out with phrases like “yes, funny.” But the alternatives just don’t have the same effect. The emoticons are too flirtatious. The hahas feel too sarcastic. And the “yes, funny”isms — who the heck says things like that?
In 2011, lol was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, having come along way since Wayne Pearson, a computer technician at the University of Calgary, first coined the term in a forum way before I was born. It’s officially part of the vernacular, but I do use lol a ton, maybe even too much?
Weeks ago, though, I came across an article in the Times lauding young women as language pioneers. Long considered a sign of immaturity or stupidity, it turns out uptalk (as in making every statement a question?) and using the word “like” every other word are sophisticated linguistic trends.
“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”
Ha! So my grandpa was wrong! Linguistic trends are often “incubated” by young women, the article says. “As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.” Well, if young women are the Paris of language, what happens when you give them AIM at 13? I think now my use of lol in chats is a lot like my use of the word “like” in real life. Instead of an annoying tic, lol is actually an important tool for communicating tone and setting the pace of a conversation taking place through chat. It has important “interactional and stylistical ends,” mmkay.