This month marks the 25th anniversary of the first known usage of LOL
for "laughing out loud” (the "lots of love" interpretation,
incidentally, is quite a bit older). The linguist Ben Zimmer notes that the earliest citation is from the May 1989 issue of a newsletter called Fidonet and is still available online, in all its ASCII'd glory:
Several terms on the original list,
such as BTW, BRB, or even AFK, have stuck around, while others,
including LMTO (laughing my tush off) and RAO (rolling all over), have
persisted in slightly modified form. But some, LTNT (long time no type),
and WLCM (welcome), have long ago faded into obscurity. In any case,
the fact that these abbreviations appear as part of a larger list of
general online shorthand suggests that they all predate the newsletter.
And as for LOL in particular, a man named Wayne Pearson says he
remembers exactly how that one was coined.
Pearson claims that
it was he who invented LOL in the early to mid 1980s on a Canadian
bulletin board system, or BBS, called Viewline, where it quickly caught
on and spread as Viewline users got free accounts on the larger chatroom
LOL was first coined on a BBS called
Viewline in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in the early-to-mid-80s. A friend
of mine who went by Sprout (and I believe he still does) had said
something so funny in the teleconference room that I found myself truly
laughing out loud, echoing off the walls of my kitchen. That's when
"LOL" was first used.
We of course had ways of portraying
amusement in chat rooms before that (>grin< >laugh< *smile*)
and the gamut of smiley faces, but I felt that none of them really got
across the fact that the other person just made you feel foolish by
laughing out loud in a room all by yourself (or worse, with other family
members in another room, thinking you quite odd!)
Unfortunately, Pearson didn't keep any records of his purported first
use of the term, so we can be sure of only 25 candles on the LOL
If I had any idea that such a thing would
spread, I would have saved the original conversation that led to the
acronym's inception. Alas, I don't even recall what was so funny! While I
can picture in my mind where I was when it happened, I can't narrow the
time down any further.
Whatever you think of Pearson’s account, it must have been a pretty
good joke that resulted in his laughter "echoing off the walls" of his
home. These days, I’d argue that LOL (commonly without caps) barely
indicates an internal, silent chuckle, never mind an uproarious, audible
guffaw. In fact, as far back as 2001 the linguist David Crystal asked rhetorically,
"How many people are actually 'laughing out loud' when they send LOL?"
(If anyone can find older such expressions of skepticism, do let us know!) As the linguist John McWhorter now describes LOL:
"What began as signifying laughter morphed into easing tension and
creating a sense of equality." In other words, the abbreviation has
evolved to relate empathy rather than hilarity.
So what will happen to LOL in the next 25 years? Will we completely
abandon it in favor of younger, hipper abbreviations, or is it part of
our language for the long-term? (The LOLcat, after all, has already given way to doge.)
Will it have a midlife crisis, then obsolesce and start relying on its
children to fix its tech problems? It should be so lucky. Remember ODM
(on de move)? I thought so.