Trendsetters and Idiots of Language Use
It has become common to hear certain email and texting expressions actually used in spoken English. I have heard both “LOL” and “OMG” in conversation in the past month.
This rankles some users of English, as is apparent from the Facebook group called, Stop saying LOL in real life, you sound like an idiot.
Everyone who speaks English has an opinion about language in the same way everyone with a driver’s license has an opinion about using a car. The issue here is whether we are equally qualified to comment. At times like this, I like to take a look back on language history for applicable examples.
We get some good perspective here from Douglas Quenqua, who examines the “Alphabet Soup” which colors our language. In a recent New York Times article, he correctly notes that there are many abbreviations which we now use and think nothing of.
- AWOL = military term, “absent without leave” (being gone without official permission)
- swag = free gifts at receptions or other events, “stuff we all get”
- Nascar = National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing
At one time, these were brand-new expressions in English, and no one knew if they would catch on and become popular fixtures in the language. Yet they did.
The Facebookers who “liked” the anti-spoken-LOL group may be on the losing side of history if you consider these other expressions which have now become so familiar that most of us don’t remember the original meanings:
- scuba = self-contained underwater breathing apparatus
- radar = radio detection and ranging
- snafu = situation normal, all fouled* up (military)
- laser = light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
While some of us (my snobby side included) like to think of language as being precise and requiring protection from the unwashed masses, history has shown us that words and word use are eminently democratic. As such, the thronging populace has the final say in elements of word choice, pronunciation, and use. Language is a democratic tool.
However, one thing that the fussbudgets and professors are good at is listing off the current (and past) rules that describe a language. To that end, let me make two contributions:
Distinguishing acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviations
- An acronym is a shortened word form where the first initials are pronounced as one word. AIDS, scuba, and NATO [‘eidz, ‘skuba, ‘neitou] are examples of this. Ditto AWOL, swag, and Nascar from above.
- An initialism is a shortened form representing the initial letter of each word where each letter is pronounced individually. These include USA, mph, and FYI [yu-wes-‘sei, em-pi-‘yeitch, ef-wai-‘yai].
- An abbreviation is any word form that shortens a longer expression. That includes acronyms, initialisms, and hybrids of the two. For example: AIDS [eidz], U.N. [yu-‘wen], and CD-ROM [si-di-‘ram].
Predictions for the future
Whether an expression continues to exist in the language 10 years or 100 years from now usually depends on utility. Based on this, I am guessing that LOL will have a short shelf life as a spoken expression but will continue to exist in rapid-fire digital communication. Score one for the critics. (For more on how a speech trend ends up in print, see RedLine Language Services’ post on there’s with plural nouns.)
On the other hand, I am predicting a longer run for OMG. This initialism can comfortably take its place alongside Gosh!, Goodness!, or Omigosh! as a way to keep in good graces with our religious friends who cringe when someone utters “God!” Long after the cuteness of speaking internet abbreviations has subsided, we will still have the need for euphemisms. Score one for the populace.
Can you think of other abbreviations in common use today? What is their predicted shelf life? Email me your guesses.
New expressions and concepts
to rankle = to bother, annoy, perturb
alphabet soup = a jumble of letters; also, a soup with noodles in the shape of letters
to think nothing of = take for granted, without special consideration
fixtures = permanent items
snobby = arrogant, elitist
unwashed = unclean (by lack of education)
eminently = largely, predominantly
thronging = crowding, mobbing, uncontrolled
fussbudgets = nitpickers, people who like to criticize or argue about every small point
Score one (for X) = Give one point (to X competitor)
to stay in good graces = to remain in a good relationship
to cringe = show a pained look on one’s face