In the 1980s in Canada, Wayne Pearson laughed at a joke his friend typed into an pre-Internet digital chat room called Viewline. “It had me bursting out laughing almost to the embarrassment of doing so in a house by myself sitting at a computer,” Pearson told the Calgary Herald in 2015.
Instead of writing “hahaha,” as he had done before when he found something funny, Pearson unknowingly made history by typing “LOL,” becoming—apparently—the very first person to do so.
When Pearson described the creation of LOL, he explained how he intended for it to be used: only if you were really laughing out loud. “A smirk, smile or giggle” was not enough to warrant an LOL. Of course, this is not how we use lol today.
“These days, I’d argue that LOL (commonly without caps) barely indicates an internal, silent chuckle, never mind an uproarious, audible guffaw,” wrote Gretchen McCulloch, the linguist and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, on LOL’s 25th anniversary.
I rarely go a few texts or Slack messages without dropping in an lol. Some sentences feel like they need a lol at the beginning or end to communicate the tone I’m trying to convey, or seem harsh or grating without an lol. I sometimes have to actively stop myself from adding lol to too many phrases. Because lol so regularly graces the end of our sentences, it’s been said that lol has morphed into a kind of punctuation mark—but it’s actually much more than that. Lol has assumed a remarkably expansive linguistic role through the ways we use it in our daily communication.
We use lol as a way of downplaying a statement; adding irony, levity, humility, empathy, or commiseration; expressing amusement; or just neutral acknowledgment. No longer simply an internet acronym that’s entered the mainstream, lol is an example of how language evolves over time, adheres to new grammatical rules, and creates community around the people that use it.
As Nerdist documented in its Oral History of LOL, the first recorded instance of lol was in the May 1989 edition of the newsletter FidoNews. (While Pearson claimed to be first, there is no digital paper trail of his 1980s lol.)
The Oxford English Dictionary designated the honor of the earliest lol as being from 1993, in an online post about someone walking out of a bad movie: “LOL… Damn that’s even worse. Ba Ha Ha Ha ha ha!” Lol was described as an interjection, which is a short syllable or word paired with a sentence that expresses an emotional reaction, like ugh.
But Célia Schneebeli, a linguist at the University of Burgundy, doesn’t think that “interjection” captures the linguistic complexity of how lol is used today. Schneebeli has spent the last five years studying YouTube comments and other forms of online communication. In a study from 2020, she analyzed the use of lol in YouTube comments from the channel Miranda Sings; in total she looked at 20,287 comments and 886 distinct occurrences of lol.
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She thinks lol is better linguistically described as a discourse marker or pragmatic marker. Discourse markers are words that help structure a sentence, or orient fragments of text to context, and past or upcoming sentences. For example, "so" or "okay," as discourse markers, can be used to change topics or open a statement, just as lol can shift to another subject mid-sentence or begin a new sentence.
Pragmatic markers are intriguing bits of language that communicate a person’s attitude, and enhance the meaning of a sentence, without being specifically descriptive of that meaning.
An example of another pragmatic marker is “well” in English (or “bon” in French). Initially, well used to mean “good.” But in conversation it can mean many things, and reflect the complex inner thoughts of a speaker. Well can communicate limited agreement: If I say something my friend disagreed with, they could respond with a drawn out, “Wellll.” Well can also be a concession: “Well, OK.”
Over time, lol has undergone pragmaticalization, Schneebeli said—when a piece of language becomes a pragmatic marker, and no longer only refers to what it originally signified, like lol meaning laughing out loud. Instead, based on context and placement, a simple lol can change the tone or attitude of a phrase. It can mitigate, or soften potential aggression, or it can be used to show empathy or complicity.
In the YouTube comments, Schneebeli found that the positioning of lol in a sentence affects its meaning. When lol is at the end of a sentence, it’s more often a pragmatic marker. When used in isolation—which Schneebeli called a “standalone lol”—it has a more simple expressive role: it communicates a reaction, like amusement.
Lol could also be viewed as having a “phatic language function,” a concept from the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson. Jakobson thought there were six functions of verbal communication: the phatic function is when language is used for social connection, even if it doesn’t pass along information.
Why did lol undergo this evolution, and not some other acronym? It could be related to what it started out signifying, which was laughter, Schneebeli said. The way people use laughter in conversation isn’t only to express that something is funny. Laughter too can be used in verbal conversation to express affiliation, convey approval, or to soften a sentence.
Whatever the reason, lol’s reach is far beyond the English-speaking world. In French, lol can be expressed as mdr, which stands for mort de rire, or dying of laughter. Schneebeli said that mdr is used in the same ways as lol, but that French people use lol more.
“I was talking to a colleague of mine who is Italian and said that Italian people also use lol in quite the same fashion,” Schneebeli said. “So that's very interesting. It seems to be used in plenty of languages in the same way.”
These linguistic features are more than just interesting language trivia. They have real impact on the way we relate to each other: We often use pragmatic markers to build connections.
Consider sending or receiving the text “I’m so depressed lol.” It might seem paradoxical to add an lol, but the way we’ve grown to use lol helps us to reach out and communicate difficult feelings. In this context, lol means “Don’t take this too seriously, but it’s also a bid for connection,” said Rachel Weissler, a sociolinguist and African American English scholar at the University of Oregon.
Similar examples might be “I don't know how I'm going to finish all these slides for class lol,” or “I can’t believe we’re living through a pandemic, lol.” These are ways of communicating a frustrating or upsetting experience, paired with a call for commiseration.
Your friends or your close colleagues probably use lol in similar ways; people create dynamic speech communities where the way language is used signals to each other that they’re part of the same group. The linguist John McWhorter wrote in the New Republic in 2012 that lol was the “equivalent of black English’s yo, a nugget of new colloquial grammar establishing a warm shared frame of reference.”
“This new yo appended to the ends of sentences has a particular function, reinforcing that you and your conversational partner are on the same page in terms of perspectives and attitudes,” McWhorter wrote.
For Weissler, lol reveals how these community-specific languages evolve in a non-random way; they have grammar and rules. “There are wrong ways to use lol,” she said. There are ways to snub someone with an lol, or use it in contexts that feel off. Pairing lol with something I don’t want to downplay, or want to convey as serious, would seem wrong. A person who uses lol to respond to everything might have expressed a confusing message or tone. As the BBC wrote in 2011, some older people have mistaken lol for lots of love, “leading to some unintended ‘LOLs’, such as the infamous tale of the mother who wrote: ‘Your grandmother has just passed away. LOL.’”
Lol is a lesson in how even the things we don’t learn in school about language still matter, and are still grammatically constrained. “I speak to this coming from being a African-American scholar, so I care about minoritized languages,” Weissler said. “A lot of people think the way Black people speak is wrong or non-grammatical, when African-American English has a full grammar system. There are ways to speak Black English wrong.”
This meaning can’t be forced. As Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic in 2016, the 19th-century poet Alcanter de Brahm tried to intentionally create a component of language that would communicate irony, in the way that lol does now. He called it a point d’ironie, which was a backwards question mark. It didn’t catch on. Other attempts have failed too: like the “SarcMark”—a punctuation mark to indicate sarcasm, which the inventors tried to patent. Internet users have since tried to make /s, at the end of a post, work, with mixed success.
We shouldn’t look down on the use (or overuse) of lol, or any other community-specific lexicons. When people learn new ways of speaking, they learn to do so within complex social contexts. “I think lol could be a nice microcosm of humans giving meaning to language for community purposes,” Weissler said.
When asked about the future of lol, Weissler said that she doesn’t think it’s going anywhere. “Lol has been used for more than 20 years now,” Schneebeli agreed. “It has blended in the background of digital conversation.”
People even say lol out loud now; it has gone full circle from being text that references language, becoming part of the spoken lexicon again. Weissler does think lol will remain in casual language arenas, and that it will continue to be a vehicle of connection. But who knows? Maybe it will continue to stretch its meanings.
For similar expressions—lmao, rofl, LOL, or lolllll, or lololol—Schneebeli said that these iterations are used more literally to express amusement. They serve mostly as reaction markers, with less of an emphasis on pragmatic or phatic function that lol has.
Will laughing emojis outcompete lol? What about “haha?” These are questions for future linguists. (There’s a field of linguistics called computer-mediated communication.) Schneebeli said that it’s still a debated question as to the comparison and competition between lol and haha.
“My belief is that lol and haha are often interchangeable but lol is more likely to be used as punctuation (indicating speaker attitude, mitigating a statement, creating irony, softening a statement in order to avoid being aggressive, dramatic), while haha is more likely to be used as an expression of amusement,” she said, but that she would have to check this hypothesis in upcoming research projects.
As for Pearson, whose invention has changed so much since its first iteration, he’s come to terms with it. He told the Calgary Herald that by now, he just “has to shake his head and LOL.”
“Why should it bug me? Words change all the time,” he said. “I have a linguistics degree, I should know better.”
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