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That’s ell oh ell

‘Out shopping. There’s a bird going cheep’.

I text this to my daughter, and then, because I’m crossing the generational gap, I add ‘lol’.

At some point, probably towards the end of the 80s, someone felt the need to signal, probably while emailing, that something was funny. Perhaps they wrote out the whole thing, ‘laughing out loud’, perhaps the phrase was frequent amongst a group of friends, and perhaps they did it so often that one of them shortened it to its initial letters. There are probably a few people who think they were first. Perhaps several people came up with the idea independently.

There were a lot of probablys and perhapses in that last paragraph. At the OED we deal with certainties and there are two things that we can say for absolute certain. First, that the earliest recorded use of lol that we can find is from 8 May 1989 in FidoNews; secondly that this is not the first time lol was used.

Someone must have been first but we’ll never know who.

Precision neologizing

Occasionally we can be precise. For example in 1926 Robert Watson-Watt wanted a word to describe that region of the earth’s outer atmosphere that reflects radio waves. Stratosphere and troposphere had both been around for over a decade, and his region contained lots of ions, so Watt came up with ionosphere, in a letter to Nature on 8 November. Other scientists picked up on the word and now ionosphere’s everywhere. For example in the British newspaper the Guardian earlier this year it was the destination of choice of an A-lister’s song.

‘Christina Aguilera’s contribution to Maroon 5′s Moves Like Jagger blasted an already euphoric song into the ionosphere.’

But you have to be careful, this looks like something similar, the magisterial coinage of ion itself by Michael Farady in 1834:

‘I require a term to express those bodies which can pass to the electrodes… I propose to distinguish such bodies by calling those anions which go to the anode of the decomposing body; and those passing to the cathode, cations; and when I have occasion to speak of these together, I shall call them ions.’

It really does look like the first time ion was used. But look at this, from a letter to Faraday from his friend William Whewell a few days before.

‘I would propose for the two elements resulting from electrolysis the terms anion and cation…, and for the two together you might use the term ions.’

It was Whewell’s idea all along, lol.

But precision is unusual. Lol’s story is more typical. Usually someone has a creative flash but we don’t know who or when or why. The more ordinary the word the less likely we are to know where it came from; no one knows the origins of posh or of the even more recent chav.

My daughter doesn’t reply to my text but when she sees me later she says, “No one says ‘lol’ any more – well, mum does, but she thinks it means ‘lots of love’.”

Where do words go when they die?

Words are born and they also die. The process is equally fascinating, but the deaths are even harder to record. And what counts as the last use of a word? My daughter would no more use lol than she’d wear one of my jumpers. I’ll probably keep using it for a bit, if only to tease her. And no doubt some will be using it lovingly to sign off their messages into their nineties. Eventually only historians of the early 21st century will understand it.

My grandfather used to say every evening that he was going to turn on the wireless for the news. I understood perfectly but I’d never have used the word myself, even while talking to him. He also used to complain about his kibes. Kibe is an interesting word: one of the handful of words (along with penguin) that may have come into English from Welsh. I never hear kibe anymore.

With lol too now gone (at least according to my daughter) I’m left with the problem of how to strike an authoritative yet cutting-edge note in texts to her. Someone did once write to the Financial Times advising managers to sign off emails to younger colleagues by hitting the keyboard at random four times. Who knows? It could be a coinage. It could even be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.