The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL”

LOL, the poster child of txtspk and internet lingo, began as a handy abbreviation for laughing out loud (and sometimes lots of love). But it has come to symbolise a whole mode of discourse: LOLspeak is a quasi-dialect unto itself, albeit mainly the preserve of unwitting LOLcats.

Some people even say lol offline to indicate amusement without having to go to the trouble of laughing. (I’m sure these people laugh normally, too.) But there’s more to LOL than meets the eye. Anne Curzan writes at Lingua Franca that the meaning of LOL has changed – it often doesn’t mean laughing out loud. You might have noticed this.

LOL is now a way to flag that a message is meant to be funny (similar to jk – ‘just kidding’) or to signal irony. LOL can also be a way to acknowledge that a writer has received a text – a written version of a nod of the head and a smile (“a chuckle at most,” one student told me).

Futurama Fry - should i lol or roflmaoI never adopted LOL myself, but I see it regularly in texts, forums, tweets and the like, and I’m pretty certain it doesn’t convey actual laughter most of the time. Unlike Curzan, I think it retains its real-laughter sense, but it has definitely broadened in meaning: to a nod of the head or a marker of irony or humour, as she says – and more besides.

Linguist John McWhorter has been studying this. He calls LOL “the texting equivalent of black English’s yo, a nugget of new colloquial grammar establishing a warm shared frame of reference”. In a TED talk (video below), he makes a persuasive case that texting isn’t so much writing as “fingered speech” with its own grammar. An example of this grammar is LOL.

McWhorter, like Curzan, feels that LOL hasn’t meant laughing out loud for a while now (I think it still does, but only sometimes). Referring to the phrases LOL it’s raining and LOL I’m inside the library; LOL I know, it’s been a long day, he points out that “no one guffaws that much. That’s not what these LOLs mean.” He continues:

If you look at the LOLs from the perspective of a geeky linguist looking for structure, what the LOLs are, are particles which indicate that the speaker – so to speak – and the addressee are sharing a certain context of interpretation, i.e., you know what this nasty day is like; You know what it’s like being in the library. That is a piece of grammar.

So LOL has been grammaticalised. It’s now a pragmatic particle, what McWhorter in a more recent talk (not yet online) calls a marker of empathy and accommodation.

Whether used like this or in the more traditional way, LOL is not “gibberish”, as a commenter here recently complained. You don’t have to like it or use it, but it’s an interesting communicative development deserving of study, not casual contempt.

Here’s McWhorter’s engaging talk:


How do you use LOL? Or if you don’t, how do you feel about it?

And did you notice McWhorter’s double copula? Not your garden variety is is, either!


48 Responses to The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL”

  1. Scott says:

    I, embarrassingly, use lol all the time in typed conversations. One important detail I think you didn’t touch on is capitalization. For me (a 32 year old programmer who has used it from the near-beginning), there’s a very big distinction between ‘lol’ and ‘LOL’. Lowercase is your simple acknowledgement of receipt, whereas all caps is reserved for something that is at least funny, if not when you actually laugh out loud. This is true to the point where a misplaced LOL warrants an apology (“Sorry, caps lock”).

    Now, I don’t know if a typical fourteen-year-old girl makes that distinction, but if she doesn’t, she needs to get off my lawn.

  2. Stan says:

    Scott: That’s interesting. Since I don’t use the term, I’ve never made an active distinction between upper and lowercase lol. Obviously I see both used, and commonly, but I haven’t paid close attention to the difference. What you say makes sense; I wonder if many others do likewise.

  3. Barrie says:

    Thank you, Stan. A point that needed making, reinforced by McWhorter’s excellent talk.

    Yes, I did notice the ‘double copula’, but isn’t it different from those which Mark Liberman describes in your link? In those, the second ‘is’ can (should?) be omitted. For example, ‘I think the point is (is) that this is metaphor with teeth.’ In the McWhorter example (‘what the LOLs are, are particles which indicate that the speaker . . .’), the second ‘are’ can’t be omitted, because each is part of a different clause.

  4. Ben Zimmer says:

    Barrie’s right — “What the LOLs are are…” is an example of the pseudo-cleft “what it is is” construction, in which both instances of the copula are grammatically warranted. See my LL post, “Obama’s ‘is is’.”

  5. Stan says:

    Barrie: Thanks for the clarification. It was an afterthought I should’ve thought more about! I’m guessing you’re not a LOL-user either.

    Ben: I appreciate the link, which I remember enjoying (and have shared with several people who’ve asked me about “is is”). My search didn’t turn it up last night, hence my default to Mark’s older post. I’ve bookmarked yours now.

  6. Frank Norman says:

    I have only very occasionally used lol, but am quite prone to hahaha in texts and tweets. Is hahaha just an old-fashioned and more long-winded version of lol?

  7. nbmandel says:

    And how about the bare smiley face that means “I have received your message and recognize its funny or friendly intent”?

  8. Joanna says:

    I use LOL for actually funny but not really laughing, have been known to use “lol for reals” when I am actually laughing, and lol by itself in lowercase at the end of a comment to be self-deprecating or to indicate sarcasm or irony. I am also known to use lololololol and hahahahaha. I do not think I am unusual in my cohort- coworkers in our 30’s and 40’s.

  9. Stan says:

    Frank: I normally use ha ha or similar, too (usually just two ha’s, though). It’s preferred by some but I don’t know if there’s much of a correlation with age. Anne Curzan’s article says EMC (electronically mediated communication) “now often relies on ‘hahaha’ (students tell me that you need at least three ha’s to show laughter if they are not capitalized).” I’d say it’s significantly more likely to indicate actual laughter than LOL is, even if it’s only a gently chuckle.

    nbmandel: That’s another matter! I resisted smileys at first, but now find them occasionally very convenient for communicating just what you say.

    Joanna: That doesn’t strike me as unusual either. I once wondered if ROFL and other hyperbolic forms arose to stress the genuineness of laughter when LOL became so common and devalued. But I figure they’re in much the same boat, and that ROFL etc. are perhaps a little more likely to indicate actual laughter, or bigger laughter. Your “lol for reals” is a different strategy; I also see phrases like “actual lol” used quite often.

  10. While many writers I know eschew TXT and emoticons with some scorn, I believe they have a place in conversational communication. They function, albeit minimally, to replace the 93% of communication that is comprised of facial expression and body language. As such, they also have a place in prose written in a conversational style.

  11. ALiCe__M says:

    “to indicate amusement without having to go to the trouble of laughing.” LOL !!!

  12. […] Stan Carey considers The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL” […]

  13. marc leavitt says:

    While I have no objection to the usage (either to express amusement or in its other evolved iterations, I find all of the texting abbreviations tiresome. I catch myself trying to figure out what some of them mean in long form, often without success. I guess I’l have to change my last name to Ludd.

  14. alexmccrae1546 says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m of the minimalist school of ‘symbolic’ laugh tropes*, and generally when warranted, predicate a jocular, or ironic bit of written communication w/ a singular HA! (Does that make me weird?)

    As a proud expat Canuck having lived for over three decades in Southern California, maybe I should consider a HA!eh! combo, eh?… in keeping with the seemingly ubiquitous use these day of the familiar greeting– “Hey!”.

    Hmm… food for thought… OR, maybe not?

    *Not sure “tropes” is the right word there. Oh well.

  15. ALiCe__M says:

    I’ve listened to the talk now, and found it heavy (can you say “heavy” for a talk?) I mean his stressing the words so hard and all, and his insistent tone make me feel sledgehammered with texting (sledghatexted?)

  16. Stan says:

    Fern: I broadly agree. Emoticons do more than minimal service, I find, in communicating tone and reducing the possibility of its being misinterpreted, especially when the people don’t know each other very well.

    Alice: Re: indicating amusement without the effort of laughing – I think lol can serve the same function as smileys in that respect. Yes, you can say a talk is “heavy”, as in “heavy going”, meaning difficult or arduous. I didn’t find his tone insistent, though.

    Marc: Some txtspk takes getting used to, certainly. But seldom is the meaning of a term not transparent in context; and when it isn’t, one can always look it up. I avoid many common texting abbreviations, like “u” for “you”, unless I need to save space (more on that here), but I don’t mind the style so long as I can process it readily.

    Alex: Ha! I do the same sometimes, though with a lowercase “a” and not always with an exclamation mark, depending on the degree of amusement. But I wouldn’t recommend combining it with a greeting. Guess you weren’t serious about that anyway.

    • ALiCe__M says:

      Stan, what I meant by “heavy” is when people say the same thing differently to make their point, but I suppose,from what you say,that “heavy” is not the appropriate word then.
      Re : “indicating amusement without the effort of laughing” : I really find the sentence so funny, particulary the very idea of an “effort”for laughing. But I wouldn’t use LOL in speech though,precisely for the reason you mentioned : laughing is a pleasure, and gives much more warmth, joy and fun than the mere “lol” sound.

  17. Nick says:

    I’ve recently gone back to university, and I’ve been surprised by how many people actually use ‘lol’ in speech. It doesn’t have a strict meaning, from what I can tell, but is usually used to denote something awkward or sarcastic.

  18. mylanguage1 says:

    A lot of people, including myself use it just as a normal expression not when actually laughing. Although when something is funny it’s used to show that something’s funny so instead of saying that’s funny I just use lol because it’s easier and everyone I talk to, seems to understand what it means.

  19. korystamper says:

    I’ve noticed a use of “LOL” online (particularly on Facebook and in texts/chats) that has really fascinated me as a lexicographer/nerd: the suffixal “OL” used like the Italian “-iss-” for amplification. Just as “pianississimo” means “very, very, very quiet,” so “LOLOL” or “LOLOLOL” means “this is very, very funny, and my reaction is appropriately outsized.” It hasn’t bled through to edited prose yet, but I have my eye on it.

    I tend not to use “LOL,” but I do indulge in an occasional ironic “lulz” (always lowercase): “You want all 6,000 entries in this batch done next week? Copious lulz.”

    I’m also fond of the weird compounds build on LOL, including the most excellent “LOLlerskates.”

  20. Stan says:

    Nick: Interesting. I haven’t heard it much in speech, but I imagine it’s increasingly common in places like colleges and universities, where irony often reigns.

    mylanguage1: Thanks. That confirms my impression that it has a lot of currency as a marker of humour (either intended or received).

    Kory: Lulz seems to take determinatives more readily than lol (e.g., “The lulz, they were epic”). Is lololol a suffixal use? I’ve been thinking of it more as reduplicative. An offshoot I see now and then is “trolololol” – sometimes as an amused reaction to an act of trolling, but also as a straightforward variant of lololol. I think this is its theme tune:

    • korystamper says:

      Stan: Are you trolololing me? I think you’re right–“lololol” is probably not suffixal, but reduplicative.

  21. Claire Stokes says:

    I’m one of those folks who has still been using LOL for, um, laugh out loud. Sigh. These additional nuances fascinate me, but – like pretty butterflies – feel beyond my grasp at this point yet.
    So this has all been very interesting.. always good to see clearly marked the gap between the vibrant, fascinating envelope and oneself! LOL.

  22. Berit says:

    A friend of mine used to use LOL in speech to express that he found something funny – usually accompanied by, if only faint, laughter. He used it to mark a statement by somebody else or a situation as funny, not to indicate sarcasm. As in “Stephen slipped on a banana peel” – “LOL”. This was about 7 years ago, and I haven’t seen him recently, so I can’t tell whether his (spoken) usage of LOL has changed.
    As for myself, I have never used LOL in spoken or written conversation.

    Oh, and we’re both native speakers of German btw.

  23. Stan says:

    Alice: Maybe long-winded is what you mean. (Though again, I didn’t find it so.) My line about laughter was meant with some humour, so I’m glad you picked up on that. :-) I agree with you, laughing doesn’t require much effort, but it’s relative: it requires more than saying lol; and we often incline towards conserving energy.

    Kory: I think reduplication is quite often used for emphasis or intensification – but not in English, which makes (tro)lololol even more interesting.

    Claire: There’s nothing at all wrong with restricting one’s use of LOL to laughing out loud; at least it’s easily understood then! I find the nuances of what people do with it fascinating too. It’s very versatile and invites idiosyncrasy.

    Berit: Thanks for that. It sounds like your friend was ahead of the curve in using LOL that way in speech. Since writing about it and discussing it so much over the last few days, I’ve begun feeling the urge to use it. Funny, that. (Funny lol, not funny ha ha ha.)

    • ALiCe__M says:

      “we often incline towards conserving energy.” ahah (happy French laugh here,) but laughing is a *pleasure*, isn’t it ? if it isn’t, then why laughing at all, we may as well say “lol”, indeed.
      Thank you for “long-winded”, that’s the word I needed!!

  24. John Cowan says:

    I don’t use LOL or any of its variants at all, nor yet heh (though an ironic “Ha” or “Ha!” is within my scope). “Heh” has always sounded to me like a particularly strangled laugh, the kind where you can’t tell if it’s a chuckle or just a bad feeling in the pit of the stomach.

    For a while on IRC I used to say “blammo” whenever anyone said “heh”, suggesting that I was blowing them away for the offense of laughing in this fashion. Some friends of mine picked up on this, and “the cosmic heh/blammo balance”, which has to be kept very close to even or Bad Things will happen, became a running joke.

  25. Frank Norman says:

    Another term I have seen used on Twitter to indicate genuine laughter, of the more explosive variety, is ‘Splort’. Usually followed by an exclamation mark.

    • Stan says:

      It’s an explosive-sounding rendition, Frank, like a spurted chortle maybe – with a hint of spit and splat, as if coffee had been spewed out onto the screen.

  26. Liz says:

    It’s become a verb too. My kids led the way, but I have caught the bug and now sometimes write “I lolled”, to indicate that I found something amusing. I do this in the full knowledge that wrinklies using teenspeak are a bit, well, embarrassing, but I don’t care. Lol.

    • Stan says:

      Liz: You’re right – it has been verbed. I’ve heard several people saying “I lolled”, and it may only be a matter of time before it slips into my own usage. Critics: lol away.

  27. […] Carey told us about the dramatic grammatic evolution of LOL and the origin of the word kempt. At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Michael Rundell gave us the story […]

  28. […] my recent post on the evolution of LOL, I included a video of John McWhorter, who has been studying this feature of language. One of his […]

  29. drfaulk says:

    I use ‘lol’ as a simple acknowledgement if a joke, and I’ve noticed a lot of friends and colleagues do the same.

    I use ‘glol’ to signal a ‘genuine’ lol, which is when I’m grinning and maybe chuckling.

    I use ‘lololololol I’m seriously pissing myself laughing’ for when I do laugh out loud.

    • Stan says:

      drfaulk: Interesting – thanks for the comment. I’ve seen glol, but not often. alol too, but more often it’s the longer but more transparent “actual lol” or “genuine[ly] lol”.

  30. Cindy says:

    Hi Stan, I’m a Chinese. I’m really interested in your blog. Can I translate this passage into Chinese for more of my Chinese friends? We also use lol while not that frequently. As a ESL speaker, I think this may help us communicating.

    • Stan says:

      Hi Cindy, thanks for your visit. Yes, you’re welcome to translate this post into Chinese, so long as you give appropriate credit (and with a link, if you’re doing it online).

  31. […] month I wrote about the dramatic, grammatic evolution of LOL,  referring to two talks on texting by linguist John McWhorter in which he describes LOL’s shift […]

  32. […] has become widely used, and no longer means simply ‘laughing out loud’, as Stan Carey has shown here, and developed by John McWhorter’s talk to which Stan links. We also have OMG, FYI, meh, the hash […]

  33. […] There is no shortage of forum messages, Facebook pages, tweets, or blog posts about the practice. The Internet community, so varied in other respects, seems to be in agreement […]

  34. Ian Osmond says:

    I believe it still means “laughing out loud.” But now it is used the way actual laughter is used, rather than the way that we THINK laughter is used.

    In your daily life, you don’t laugh when things are funny, not mostly. Your huge guffaws are when you encounter things that are funny, and if someone types “lol” bare, like that, not in the midst of a sentence, that’s how it’s being used.

    However, most of the time when you laugh, it’s because you’re saying something embarrassing, awkward, potentially slightly offensive, or something like that. Laughter in conversation is mostly used to reduce the emotional impact of a sentence.

    And THAT is how “lol” is used in the middle of the sentence: exactly the same way that laughter is.

    Check it out. Listen to people talking in real life — listen to your own speech. And then compare it. It maps 100%.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it can mean “laughing out loud” – among other things. It can also indicate a smile or quiet amusement. And it can serve as a discourse particle, as McWhorter describes. Regardless of its position in a sentence, it doesn’t map 100% to vocalized laughter. Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (excerpts in this post) has good discussion – and actual data – on our various motivations for laughing.

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