You Got Internet in my OED!

So recently the Oxford English Dictionary has added “LOL,” “OMG” and a heart symbol as new additions to the English language. A fellow UCWbLer expressed trepidation over this on Facebook, and I think a lot of people feel a similar kind of weird uneasiness about the whole development without really knowing why they feel that way, or even what they really feel. Anyone reading this likely has a vested interest in language and communication, so likely this theoretical reader has some feeling about the issue as well. So this is where I step in and say some amazing stuff.

So this UCWbLer friend, let’s call her, say, “Christine,” as that is in fact her name, felt weird about the new additions to the OED. She qualified her statement with an assurance that she was not opposed to the idea that language was a living, changing thing that will inevitably mutate and cover new ideas expressed in unforeseen ways, but followed it up with a sort of disappointment in the direction the youth culture has shaped the English language. In short, she was unhappy that what amounts to our contributions are little more than space saving acronyms.


These New Words are Stupid and UselessRight?

I think this is at the root of a lot of the unease about the legitimization of these new words. Namely, that they really aren’t seen as words. A word has etymology, history, root words in previous languages, a reason why it means what it means. LOL was invented by some unknowable being back in the infancy of the internet, and it has always stood for “Laugh out loud” (or “lots of laughs” according to some people who are wrong. Also it apparently meant “Little old lady” in the sixties, giving it somewhat of an etymology—just a slightly less highbrow one than most expect from the OED). The distinction between LOL and previously established words is easy to deem insignificant. If a word is just an amalgamation of other words, it’s tempting to deny that it is a new entity and instead call it a phrase. However, LOL and OMG have taken on lives of their own, often not even perceived as the phrases they purport to symbolize but as discrete words, sometimes even spoken aloud. But still, the stigma of the all-caps acronym remains with them. It’s hard to accept them as legitimate additions because it seems as if nothing else in that format has been accepted as a real facet of the language . Usually new words are used to describe things that did not exist in the past (see: motherboard), or old versions tweaked to carry a slightly different meaning (see: truthiness). But LOL and OMG take that formula to an extreme never visited before. Except, you know, by “snafu.” But that was forged in the bowels of war. Not on the decadent, time-sucking Internet. This is important, right? It seems to be, as no one moans about snafu (or IHS, a short name for Jesus from the 7th century, and an “initialism” just like LOL).


Ain’t it Just Like the Kids These Days to Come Up With Words Like This?

The fact that my friend went out of her way to call LOL and OMG our generation’s contributions to the language, coupled with her mild despondence over the whole affair, establishes that there exists those who consider these words somehow on a lower stratum of the lexical hierarchy, and therefore the age group responsible for creating the words is on a similarly lowered intellectual stratum (It’s funny that I’ve seen multiple college students call this OED thing a “low point” for “our generation—consider that LOL in its current format has been around since 1990, the year I was born. Unless the person coining this phrase was five, he or she would be considered part of “my generation” only in the broadest definition. Perhaps the anger is because “our generation” is the one who made it ubiquitous. In the words of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, “who’s the greater fool, the fool or the fool who follows him?”). When one is considered a member of a certain generational demographic, any intellectually lazy act its members commit in full view of the public eye will be met with cringes by those members who wish to transcend and accomplish feats of mental acuity (as Christine certainly does). She doesn’t want to be associated with term papers peppered with lines like “LOL I don’t really think Jay Gatsby was that cool, Daisy should have just had more parties so she could get buck nasty,” she doesn’t want people to think she butchers language or disrespects its conventions. No one has to say this is a good thing, and no one has to agree that its prominence in a generation shouldn’t go unadmonished. But the origin of these words is irrelevant, and will become increasingly so as time passes and it is forgotten. Either the issue will evaporate as LOL and its compatriots become accepted at face value, or they will fade from usage and become a curious footnote. Regardless, their acceptance into the OED is not the same as judgment of the worth of today’s youth. The OED is not saying that LOL and OMG are stupid peoples’ words and that the fact that “you people” came up with them makes you stupid. It’s easy to assume that, but the fact is, the words are new, novel, and their presentation carries a noticeably different connotation than their denotative components (that is to say, one would certainly perceive the sentences “Laugh out loud these cats are hilarious” and “LOL these cats are hilarious” differently). In that, why should they not be considered legitimate?

After all, all the OED has said is that LOL and OMG are words. And words, in all honesty, are just that: words. A word is a symbol agreed upon by a society to carry meaning, and in that sense there can be little debate that LOL and OMG fit the criterion. Christine said something to the effect that while LOL can mean something, she would not be able in good conscience to let a writer use it in an academic paper during her work as a Writing Fellow—that to use something else, something more descriptive, specific, and stimulating, would help them become a better writer. I agree with this, in this situation. What I don’t agree with is the extrapolation of this point, namely, that LOL and OMG are therefore not worthwhile words. This thought that LOL and OMG aren’t up to snuff as words is at the heart of all uneasiness with the OED’s decision. Even if you agree that they are new words, and that the culture has demanded they become recognized, it seems hard to accept these things as words of the same merit as “synecdoche,” “intersubjectivity,” “sartorial” or what have you.


Sure, Maybe They’re Words, But Do I Have To Respect Them?


Since these new words are not to be used in academic writing, many take a leap and dub them base, vulgar, and not to be trusted. Except I don’t really think it’s too big a deal. “Motherfucker,” “big pimpin'” and “kitty” aren’t exactly the kinds of words that convey ideas of great import or strain the intellectual bounds of human thought, but I will fight tooth and nail to keep them in my language, because they are awesome words. They deserve to be used in their own contexts, and in those contexts, there is no better word to communicate meaning. Such is also the case in the contexts during which LOL and OMG should be used–they communicate a meaning in a way no other word could. If they can do this, their merit as words becomes more difficult to question. So when Christine said she was disappointed in our generation for the legitimizing of LOL and OMG, I figured what she really was miffed about was how often context for LOL and OMG come up in the lives of the youth of today. This has less to do with language, and more to do with the way the young generation lives their lives–less of a comment on language and the merit of words (which I believe to have shown to be generally a fruitless exercise), and more a critique of the lifestyles and habits of the young generation.


Well, Can I At Least Judge Those Who Came Up With It?

But the whole “decadent youth” issue is a dangerous thing to approach, especially when one takes into consideration that youth culture has been seen as immoral, destructive, intellectually lazy, and disrespectful to tradition since there have been youth cultures and old people to complain about them (exceptions: cultures where slaves perform the entirety of the culture’s menial labor and women are not regarded as citizens so the tiny remaining fraction of participators in the “culture” have the free time to all be philosophers, cultures where one was a baby until they could handle a plow at which point they became adults, and generations that fight in a war and therefore get a Hero pass). Dozens upon dozens of youth cultures have been decried as civilization-ending heathens. Imagine if you will the hubbub made over Elvis Presley, whose devil music was surely the height of sin and would inevitably create a generation of sex-crazed demons who would sooner eat a child’s face than show proper decorum—all this for a man whose slightly-sped-up country songs are now considered non-threatening classics. I’d be very, very surprised if there weren’t some Elizabethan Englishmen who were disappointed that Shakespeare would legitimize the slang of the commoner by including it in his writing, and imagine how much leaner the OED would be if he hadn’t. Living in the midst of this culture, it’s easy to get swept up in moralizing and judgment. After all, there’s crazy new shit going on that has never happened before and that, almost by definition, will be scary and weird.

But LOL and OMG are words, and that’s just the way it is. A word is a word is a word and if you don’t want to use it, you don’t need to. But to call a word’s entry to the lexical canon a low point for our generation/our language/the editors of the OED/civilization as a whole simply isn’t accurate.

P.S.- This post is based on a conversation I had that took place in the comments section of a Facebook status. I’m sure some enthusiastic scholar could write pages on analysis about debating the merits of Internet-generated content encroaching upon real life while on the Internet, but I’ll just leave it as a funny footnote.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Marianne K. says:

    OMG, I <3 this! lol

  • David S. says:

    As an older person, I find much culturally significant about this discussion. Throughout most of the XXth century, American slang came primarily, one might almost say exclusively, from African Americans: from jazz (cool, hip), from youth (da bomb, player), etc. Has “computer culture” become a powerful force in America and the world? I would say so! The real question is whether these terms will last, or cross over into academically validated speech.