LOL – Language of letters

About 10 years ago I texted a joke to a work colleague on my phone.


About 10 years ago I texted a joke to a work colleague on my phone. He texted back “hilarious lol” and I wondered how he knew my childhood nickname. Only my family and a few close friends called me Lol or Lolly. Later I found out that he wasn’t referring to my nickname at all, and that “lol” stood for “laugh out loud.” I felt so out of touch. Was I the only one who didn’t know this?

I asked some others if they knew what “lol” stood for and most were well aware. There were a few, though, that didn’t know, and a couple who thought it meant “lots of love” or “little old lady.” Since then it’s become one of the most popular acronyms, and I’ve even heard people verbally saying “lol” when they think something’s funny.

With so many of us communicating with our mobile devices these days, it makes sense that abbreviations are being used more than ever. Wouldn’t most of us prefer to text a handful of letters rather than a bunch of full words if we could get the same message across fully and effectively in a shorter period of time? I, for one, would not.

I never type “lol” to express my amusement, and I rarely use cyber slang.

I can’t say why exactly. One friend suggested it’s because I’m a writer and so in love with words that I can’t bear to butcher the English language. But I don’t think that’s it, or it would probably bother me to read it, and it doesn’t – even when I have no idea what it says.

A new girlfriend just sent me a message with “wbu” in it, and I had to look it up online. Apparently it means “what about you?” Huh? Those initials would spell out “way” for goodness sake. Obviously I would not be the best person to come up with chat-speak because my initial guess for “wbu” was “we buy undies” and that didn’t fit with our exchange whatsoever.

I think a more plausible explanation for why I don’t like to shorten my words and phrases is because I don’t like being misunderstood. It also feels like something young people do, and something I did when I was in my teens and early 20s.

Back then I was inspired by the musical artist Prince. He was well known for using U instead of you; R instead of are; 2 instead of to, two or too; and a variety of other abbreviations I’d never seen used before I started buying his records and reading his lyrics.

“Maybe Prince invented text talk,” my 10-year-old daughter said when I told her that he was the first person I ever saw doing it over three decades ago.

Doubtful. But he definitely prompted my friends and me to come up with a fun code-like language long before we had computers – some of which never caught on. For example, “r u up 4 *$?” meant “do you want to go to Starbucks?” – yet I don’t see “*$” on any online jargon dictionaries. Oops, never mind, I just found it on

“This crap is the reason kids can’t spell anymore,” my older neighbor said recently. “If my children were young I wouldn’t allow them to abbreviate words. It’s lazy.”

I can understand that belief, but I don’t think it’s accurate. Although I’m no longer into it myself, I think cyber slang is just a modern day shorthand and is fine to use casually. It’s efficient and it can make you think. My 10-and-13-year-old kids use it so much that I’m frequently guessing what things mean, and if I can’t figure it out, I’ll ask them or look it up so I remember for next time.

And just because they’re proficient in it doesn’t mean they’re not also great at traditional spelling and grammar in school.

As Mark Twain once said: “Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.” The legendary humorist must be “loling” in his grave right now.

Lori Welbourne is a syndicated columnist. She can be contacted at