Every year, I love looking over the list of new words to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary. These new words give us clues to how our culture is changing. Not surprisingly, over the past several years many of the new inclusions have been related to technology, like “Interweb”, “defriend”, and “social media.” Compare this to words like “antibiotic” and “clone” which were added in the 1950s or “breathalyzer” and “astronaut” which were added in the 1960s; we are worlds apart.
Regardless of the era, the new words in the OED always are met with some criticism by language purists. However, one recent inclusion to the OED has caused a particularly large amount of criticism: “LOL.” For those who don’t know, “LOL” stands for “laughing out loud.” The OED defines it as:
“Etymology: Initialism < the initial letters of laughing out loud ; sometimes also pronounced as an acronym. Colloq… Originally and chiefly in the language of electronic communications: ‘ha ha!’; used to draw attention to a joke or humorous statement, or to express amusement.”
After the OED announced that LOL would be joining the ranks of new words like “to heart”, “la-la land”, anti- LOL groups appeared on Facebook and bloggers spoke against the initialism in posts with titles like “Death of the Dictionary.” Whether you love LOL or hate it, you can probably at least appreciate the roots of the word and what they mean.
Underneath the OED definition for LOL, you will see the brief history of its origins. According the OED researchers, LOL was first used in the UseNet newsgroup FidoNews in 1989. By 1993, it had spread to other newsgroups on UseNet. After a few more years, LOL had infiltrated AOL chatrooms, then the internet, and then popular culture.
Many people forget that UseNet – the electronic communication service – predates the World Wide Web by a full decade. Back at the start of UseNet, it was very cliquish (it still is) and had a limited amount of users who communicated closely. The close relationship of the UseNet users meant that they could invent their own language and be understood. This would not be possible in today’s overwhelmingly vast internet. When we see new words forming, it is usually from the influence of major businesses (take the OED inclusion “unfriend” from Facebook as an example).
We know that Google has the archives of UseNet newsgroups on file. So who is responsible for coming up with LOL and changing our vocabulary (for better or for worse)? It was a man from Calgary named Wayne Pearson who wrote the acronym as a joke when replying to UseNet member “Sprout.”