From abbreviations to portmanteaus, to purposefully misspelled words, we exist in a world of beautiful and butchered words: the language of internet slang. But where does it come from? The internet certainly didn’t invent slang, so how did the :) and lulzing come about?
To truly embrace the etymological journey of internet slang, let us delve into a brief history of Usenet. You might have run across it while trying to “questionably download” files, but back in the day (circa 1979) it was the communications network, and continues to be the oldest one still in use. Usenet was essentially a bulletin board that allowed users to post comments in newsgroups, or topically structured discussions, which they eventually started to call threads (sound familiar?) Fascinating stuff, but what’s really awesome is that they archived everything so people like me (and you, if you’re so inclined) can go frolic in the land of internet fossils.
Easily one of the most used terms in day-to-day exchanges, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) officially recognized the word in March of 2011. In pre-internet speak, lol could mean anything from “lots of luck” to “lots of love” and didn’t get its current status until the mid 1980’s when Wayne Pearson (just some dude) wrote an email to a friend about a situation where he found himself literally “laughing out loud.” Wayne wrote a letter explaining all this, but unfortunately he doesn’t have the backup logs to prove this. So, if you require an exact date, OED traces it back to a FidoNews newsletter sent on May 8th, 1989.
Seen as a corruption of lol, it is likely that Jameth, an administrator of Encyclopedia Dramatica, was the first to coin this term back in 2004 with his participation in the Lulz News Network. But then again, Encyclopedia Dramatica traces lulz back to a conversation between Jesus and Putin, so, yeah. (Read with caution: if you are easily offended, you will be offended.)
Though it may have started out as a plural for lol, it then evolved into the 4chan meme, “I Did it for the Lulz,” which is now synonymous with the mischievous actions of internet hacker groups LulzSec and Anonymous.
Everyone and their mother has been using “haha” to denote laughter but the more sarcastic “harhar” is a recent invention. While the phrase may have originally been “hardy har har,” it is unclear as to whether comedian Jackie Gleason was the first to use it in a Honeymooners skit, or if it was originally uttered in Kubrick’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Emoticons (aka emotion + icon) are much older than we think. Vertical emoticons can be traced back to a 1881 printing of a satirical magazine called Puck. Though, there are some who argue that an Abe Lincoln speech, transcribed and printed in 1862, was actually the first emoticon sighting. But today’s horizontal :-) is attributed to Scott Fahlman, a Carnegie Mellon professor, who proposed using “the following character sequence for joke markers: :-)” back in 1982.
Fun Fact: The smiley turned 30 last month.
Unfortunately this is not an acronym for “stupid pointless annoying messages,” but rather we find its source in a Monty Python sketch, aptly named, “Spam.” Basically an old lady tries to order a meal that doesn’t include SPAM, which is impossible because everything on the menu includes SPAM (there’s also Vikings and songs), but it’s a whole thing that boils down to excessive repetition of the word SPAM.
Spam originally had a couple meanings: crashing a person’s computer with too much data, using a computer program to aid in the mass duplication of objects, or flooding a chat window with random, repetitive nonsense. The first spamming incident can be traced back to 1978, but the first use of of the word comes from a MUD, or a multi-user-dungeon (think prehistoric WoW). Here’s some MUDers discussing its origin back in 1990.
But how does that explain the penis drugs, the one cent smartphones, and the “cute girls looking for love”? Thank Sanford “Spamford” Wallace for his ingenious malicious “advertising” strategy.
Fun Fact: SPAM (the meat kind) stands for “Spiced HAM”.
Newbie (and n00b)
The term newbie shows up in the mid-1800’s and likely comes British school yards where incoming students were called “new boy’s” to distinguish their newcomer and/or novice status. But it’s internet debut was over a century later in the talk.bizarre Usenet group and has since been immortalized in Usenet’s Jargon File (like the source for original, untainted hacker slang.)
N00b technically means the same thing except it’s kind of derogatory. Also, it’s an iteration of Leetspeak, which is a whole other universe of sub-culture slang. It’s not entirely clear why Leet was developed (superiority complexes? elitism? privacy? protection from censors?) but Leet’s alternative alphabet went mainstream sometime in the 1980’s. We’ve now come full circle, transliterating n00b (Leetspeak) back into noob (English?).
Trolls used to exist in our collective imaginations, but now they are very real, extremely annoying and never seem to go away. The phrase “trolling for newbies” showed up in the early 90’s and was popularized by the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban (AFU).
This excerpt from a February 1990 post may not constitute the first usage of the word, but pretty much sums it up: “You are a shocking waste of natural resources – kindly re-integrate yourself into the food-chain. Just go die in your sleep you mindless flatulent troll.”
While we don’t often think of FAQ’s as slang, “Frequently Asked Questions” weren’t common usage until the early 1980’s when Eugene Miya needed a way to limit newbie questions on NASA’s SPACE mailing list. Technically, subscribers were supposed to download an entire database of old questions and read through them before asking new ones. Instead, Eugene gathered those frequently asked questions into one document for easy, efficient downloading. This concept spread to Usenet, where it eventually took on the abbreviation FAQ, and it became netiquette to read the FAQ page before asking newbie questions.
Fun Fact: Some people think it stands for “Frequently Answered Questions.”
Extra Credit: @replies
The @ reply was used only four days into Twitter’s existence, back in March of 2006, to designate that users were “at” a place (i.e. @ work). It wasn’t until November of that year that two users, Neil Crosby and Ben Darlow, started up a conversation using the @ replies as we know them today. It took another two months for the twitterverse to sort itself out and agree to the @username (instead of @ username). Read the in-depth story over here.
Let’s be honest, I didn’t even scratch the surface with my selection of internet slang, but I had to stop somewhere :-)
Editor’s Note: Apologies for all the links, but I am a troll.
(Actual Editor’s Note: Obs, I did it for the lulz.)
Photo by Remi Coin