Sunday, February 12, 2017

The roots of LOL

Back in the days of Sputnik, before the Internet and social media, we children used but few social acronymic sigilla.  One indelible in memory was SWAK, which stood for “Sealed With A Kiss”:  you put it on the back of the envelope (over where you would have licked the flap) of a letter to your girl- or boyfriend.   But its acronymic status was accidental -- it was not part of any acronymic army, such as we have in today’s busy world of BRB and TYT -- and functioned much like (what would later become) such sublinguistic symbols as the happy-face.  Indeed, those same envelopes often had, subscripted to the stamps, the amazingly kid-witty formula entreating speedy delivery:

Postman postman -- Don’t D-lay!
Do D cha-cha  all D way!

Today’s acronymic armamentarium is incomparably greater, in extent and sometimes even in structure.  As, when  to LOL  there effectively accrete  a comparative and a superlative (à la  good/better/best):   ROFL;  LMAO.


Such reflections were occasioned by a passage in James Gleick’s entertaining survey, The Information (2011), as he recounts that earlier splendid invention, telegraphy, which anticipated the Internet in quasi-instantaneously connecting (eventually) everyone to anyone else.   Initially simply for economy (since the sender paid by the word), later also for comsec,  telegraph-fans came up with such LOL&SWAK-like acronyms as

GMLT (give my love to…)
YMIR  (your message is received)

and even


which, as you possibly guessed  but more likely not, stood for   “Will you exchange gold for eastern funds”.    And with that, afficionados were well on their way to the construction of extensive subject-specific codebooks, and thence, generalizing, to subject-neutral cryptography.


It is remarkable, what pleasure a certain cast of mind takes, in coming up with artificial languages and coding-systems.   Some are systematic, are meant to be practical, and are very ambitious, spanning the whole of natural language:  Leibniz’s characteristica universalis, or Volapük and its congeners.  Others are practical but limited to a given domain, like shipping-codes.   And still others are just for fun:  Netspeak, and LOLcats lingo.  (Strenuous fun, though: the entire Bible has been translated into LOLcats, Old Testament and New.)   Mankind hasn’t had so much fun  since Adam named the animals.

Bonus:  mini-emojis (a minimal-pair):

In a novel by Kingsley Amis, I Like It Here (1958), a woman signs-off her love-letter thus:

             yum yum yum yum

      x (bitey one)            X (open mouth one)


  1. See

    for ham radio morse code abbreviations and acronyms. The most famous, from my teen years as an 'operator': 88, 73, CQ, et al.

  2. Mr. Woolf beat me to my comment. There is nothing friendlier in life than when a Ham gets a "73 OM," unless your communicant, as happened every day at the end of the daily sked in our Aegean Sea network, instructs you to "splice the mainbrace."

    1. Whew, excellent! Over my head, but,
      I do know what "splice the mainbrace" means (even though I have no idea what a "mainbrace" is, nor how one might attempt to "splice" it) -- and
      *I'll drink to that!!*
      [Keith, are you mit-trinkend?]