The weird underside of DoggoLingo
Our subject today is DoggoLingo, an internet language whose star (Sirius, obviously) has been steadily on the rise. Like LOLCat – which has long been the most famous comic language on the web, a convention used to ventriloquize pictures of felines captured in human-like attitudes – DoggoLingo usually appears alongside an image. Unlike LOLCat, however, DoggoLingo tends to operate in terms of free indirect discourse; the speaker is a human admiring (or mirin’) a dog, but the vocabulary is implied to be the dog’s own idiom. In keeping with old cultural beliefs about what goes on in the canine brain, the vocabulary of DoggoLingo is upbeat, joyful, and clueless in a relentlessly friendly way. (Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read? No way, Groucho – inside of a dog we see nothing but light.)
Two especially popular purveyors of DoggoLingo are the Facebook account Dogspotting, which has more than 635,000 members, and the Twitter account WeRateDogs, which boasts an incredible 2.64 million followers (at time of writing). Here is a sample glossary that draws on both:
|Blop||Extending tongue||Long boi||Long or skinny dog|
|Boop, a boop||Pat, a pat||Mlem||Extending tongue|
|Bork||Bark; sometimes dog, by metonymy||Pupper||Dog|
|Borkdrive||Running while barking||Pupperino||Dog|
|Fat boi||Fat dog||Smol||Small|
|Good||What a dog is||Woofer||Dog|
Dogspotting, which publishes pictures and captions written by ordinary dog lovers, uses the language more sparingly; WeRateDogs, which is written by a lone auteur-turned-professional, sends the language into borkdrive. Even so, a selection of recent Dogspotting submissions shows the practice to be alive and well among the internet laity: Found a smol fuzzy choco bear at a family reunion named Boo; Saw this big heckin doggo on the disc golf course yesterday, he was doin a good find for his owner; SPOTTED: the most adorable floof cloud on my way to work 13/10 would be late for work again to stop and snuggle; Spotted this little boop in the west village, 10/10 would try to lure away with treats.
DoggoLingo vocabulary and syntax
Discussions of DoggoLingo have tended to focus on its attention-grabbing vocabulary. As the language scholar Gretchen McCulloch noted in an interview for NPR, DoggoLingo is long on onomatopoeia. Words such as bloop, mlem, and woofer take meaning from sound, perhaps because this seems more plausible – less abstract, more immediate – for a dog’s vocabulary. DoggoLingo also leans hard on cutesy tags, she said: “Doggo, woofer, pupper, pupperino, fluffer – those have all got an extra suffix on the end to make them cuter.” The cutesiness gets the picture ready for consumption, offering up the dog as an eminently scritchable, eminently smoochable doggo. (The word doggo comes from Australia, where the suffix -o is in common use. Australian internet users likely popularized the word via Dogspotting.)
DoggoLingo also borrows morphological features from prior internet languages. Long boi takes boi from general usage on Twitter, where alternate spellings of common words can be a sign of modishness. Smol was already in general use for the same reason; bork, evidently a misspelling of bark, simply applies the same principle. (Why are intentional misspellings so popular? In part, it may signal au courance; the hip sense the moment when boy is out and boi is in. And in part, it may serve as a knowing spin on internet textuality at large: fast-typing fingers often misspell words; bots often misspell words, lacking a human operator to make corrections; and trolls often misspell words as an easy way to get a reaction.) Tagging a description with the line “__/10 would/would not…” is likewise a familiar formula online.
As with other internet languages, more advanced users move from vocabulary to mastering a distinctive syntax. Like LOLCat, DoggoLingo often conjugates verbs weirdly. It also makes the word do serve in place of other verbs: he did an attempt; he did a frighten; doin a good find; doin’ a snooze. Ultimately, however, the popularity of DoggoLingo may come down to the comic effect produced, by its most high-profile practitioners, on the level of style: clipped sentences, sudden changes of topic, whimsical and unexpected descriptions. Perhaps the best way to contextualize this style is to make a brief detour to a corner of the internet called Weird Twitter.
The one-liners of Weird Twitter
The person who coined the term “Weird Twitter” is unknown. Nor has anyone yet made a definition that corresponds exactly with what people mean when they use the term, although a few valiant writers have tried. Broadly, Weird Twitter is a casual network of humorists on Twitter who favor one-liners written in a style high on whimsy, melancholy, terror, and textual conventions borrowed from the lowest energy state of social media, with constant textspeak, misspellings, and choppy sentences. More broadly still, Weird Twitter is a style borrowed from this community: a pressure to make every post interesting (in the same way that, say, the Irish gift for gab is a pressure to make every sentence interesting) that favors common elements in the realization of this goal: humor; absurdity; wordplay that relies on disassembling familiar phrases; references to the realities of the Millennial generation, like ubiquitous social media, celebrity culture, insecure employment, the terrors of adulting; abrupt shifts from the mundane to existential terror. The tonal shifts are vertiginous: one moment you’re making a silly joke, the next a void opens below.
Here are a few examples of tweets written in this style. (I chose accounts whose content has migrated into other parts of the internet or even off the internet entirely; in one case, the jokes were reprinted in a city’s metro newspaper, the kind you read on the subway.)
i’m not racist, but, *cranes neck to see if anyone’s around. keeps craning. head unscrews entirely. out of the hole pour jewels & mysteries*
— bandit (@UtilityLimb) September 27, 2011
“anyone hear about this new ipad?” [jay leno pauses] “anyone hear anything at all?” [jay wanders the desolate cities. even the wind is gone]
— bandit (@UtilityLimb) April 17, 2012
going to start thinking it’s ” Not a good look” to order 1000 island dressing without being able to name the 1000 islands
— wint (@dril) June 9, 2017
if your grave doesnt say “rest in peace” on it you are automatically drafted into the skeleton war
— wint (@dril) 28 July 2013
Since that final post in the list appeared in 2013, it has accumulated 28,190 retweets and 36,771 likes. The most successful comedy on social media gets its bang from a tragic view of life – perhaps precisely because it circulates online, where secrets breed in the open and bad news is always just a click away. Jokes on Weird Twitter have a melancholy feel suggestive of tightrope walking over a pit; we are always aware that the motion is there to delay the fall.
They’re good dogs Brent
All of this is by way of highlighting yet another instance of language use at the margins that has crossed over spectacularly into the mainstream. For an internet language can be more than just a language; it can be a lucrative business, as the success of WeRateDogs amply shows. A recent profile in Esquire magazine of the founder of WeRateDogs, a college student named Matt Nelson, shows how a mega-popular Twitter account can become a bestselling brand: a mobile phone game is now available; a book is coming out in October; an online store sells clothing, mugs, and car stickers with profits “in the low five figures each month.” Nelson is a self-described student of Weird Twitter, and wrote tweets in its style before moving to an exclusive focus on dogs. His distinctive use of DoggoLingo cleans up Weird Twitter comedy and makes it palatable to the mainstream; whimsy and wandering textspeak become an escape from sadness rather than a distillation of it. He borrows acrobatics from the tightrope act over the pit, but tilts the view so that you only see sky:
This is Beau. That is Beau’s balloon. He takes it everywhere. 13/10 would protect at all costs pic.twitter.com/YDtpCjIPKN
— WeRateDogs™ (@dog_rates) June 25, 2017
Here’s a h*ckin peaceful boy. Unbothered by the comings and goings. 13/10 please reveal your wise ways pic.twitter.com/yeaH8Ej5eM
— WeRateDogs™ (@dog_rates) May 28, 2017
This is Jamesy. He gives a kiss to every other pupper he sees on his walk. 13/10 such passion, much tender pic.twitter.com/wk7TfysWHr
— WeRateDogs™ (@dog_rates) May 22, 2017
At first I thought this was a shy doggo, but it’s actually a Rare Canadian Floofer Owl. Amateurs would confuse the two. 11/10 only send dogs pic.twitter.com/TXdT3tmuYk
— WeRateDogs™ (@dog_rates) April 17, 2017
These posts represent an extension of Weird Twitter’s web-savvy style. Protect at all costs, unbothered, and such passion, much tender are formulations with proven success online – the latter from another animal language on the web called doge. WeRateDogs’s heavy use of puns – pupmost, puppologize, pupright, pupset – pays homage again to LOLCats, where the puns are feline. The bogus swear-word h*ck hails (McCulloch suggests) from yet another animal language, sneck, which uses heck to convey an effort to intimidate that reads, instead, as lovable; usefully, the altered spelling h*ck is distinctive enough to represent the brand on merchandise. “I’m not pretending that I reinvented the wheel with WeRateDogs, but taking the time to find the voice and craft the voice, I spent 24/7 in the beginning doing that, and that is why it’s successful,” Nelson told Esquire. “Nothing’s original anymore. So you have to put your own spin on a thing that already exists.”
Great artists have spun gold from prior styles of speaking and storytelling. (Oscar Wilde went to school on Walter Pater.) The remix culture of internet languages doesn’t trouble me – but I have to admit the anthropomorphism of animal languages does, a little. The joyful, clueless, relentlessly cutesy captions on Dogspotting and elsewhere say much about what we want from pictures of dogs, but not much at all about the dogs pictured. In the words of a colleague, these languages trade in false empathy – how one would feel in another’s place, rather than how it feels to be another.
For now, I’m not going to lose my subscription to Dogspotting, but I am going to listen more carefully to what my dog is trying to get across. And I’ll check out more literature that admits that animals, too, live in a grownup, frightening world. The New Yorker editor Katherine White wrote in 1935, “There are too many coy books full of talking animals, whimsical children, and condescending adults. (Some of the most famous animals in the world have talked, but they talked real talk and they weren’t called silly names like Doody and Mooloo. They were called names like The Cheshire Cat and they asked sensible questions like ‘Did you say pig, or fig?’)” A few years later, her husband published a pretty good book about a pig, a spider, and the power of the written word on the web.