The Linguistics of LOL

In my last post, I wrote about John McWhorter’s The Secret Lives of Words, a fascinating article that explained how language changes over time. Building off of that discussion, I’d like to examine the history of ‘lol,’ a word that many of us use in our day-to-day lives, perhaps without giving thought to what it really means.

The origins of ‘lol’ can be traced back to the 1980s when Canadian linguist Wayne Pearson used the acronym to literally mean “laughing out loud” in an internet chat room. He’s quoted as saying that a joke his friend told him had him “bursting out laughing almost to the embarrassment of doing so in a house by [himself] sitting at a computer.”

Today, the term ‘lol’ seems to mean something completely different; I can’t remember the last time I actually used it to indicate that I laughed out loud, instead opting for a common variation such as ‘lmao’ when I find something really funny. Unlike its modern counterparts, ‘lol’ has shifted away from indicating physical laughter as an interjection and more towards changing the tone or general meaning of a sentence, a process referred to as pragmaticalization.

In its current state, the term may indicate a humorous tone when placed at the end of a sentence. It can soften a joke or mitigate aggression, or even show empathy or complicity. Instead of acting as a standard word, the omnipresent term seems to behave more like a flexible punctuation mark.

Russian linguist Roman Jakobson once theorized that verbal communication had six functions, one of which was the phatic function, language being used for social connection, even when it doesn’t pass along information. Some linguists, including Professor McWhorter and Dr. Rachel Weissler, have argued that ‘lol’ may now have some phatic significance, acting as a bridge between two speakers that indicates a warm, shared frame of reference. For Weissler, this ability to form a social connection also reveals that the term still has a grammar; that is to say, there are incorrect uses of ‘lol.’ Moving past the clear misinterpretations of the acronym (I heard you failed your chem test. LOL.), wherein LOL should mean lots of love, the pragmatic marker can also lose its meaning when overused or make a sentence unclear when used to indicate seriousness or genuineness.

In summary, ‘lol’ has gone through a serious transformation since its 80s origins and has now become one of the most used and most flexible components of the English language. Whether you’re laughing or chuckling or amused or joking or just looking to find some common ground, the popular pragmatic marker has something just for you.

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