by Liz Walter
Critics of the UK prime minister were gloating recently when it emerged that he had ended a text to a prominent newspaper editor with LOL, believing it to mean ‘lots of love’. Here, they claimed, was one more example of how out of touch David Cameron is. LOL, as anyone with their finger on the pulse surely knows, stands for ‘laugh(ing) out loud’ and is used to indicate that something is amusing.
Were Mr Cameron’s children slightly older, he would almost certainly not have made the mistake. As the mother of teenagers, I am quite accustomed to my witticisms being met by a sarcastic version of this acronym. However, my offspring’s response comes not via text messages, but as a part of their everyday spoken vocabulary, and pronounced not as individual letters, but as a single word.
Common acronyms such as OMG (oh my God) are now used ubiquitously in speech and writing, albeit in informal contexts. Others remain more puzzling to the behind-the-curve parent. IKR, it was recently explained to me, stands for ‘I know, right.’ Thankfully, this is an expression of emphatic agreement with what has just been said, and is thus more welcome than CBA (can’t be arsed), which is so common amongst young people that it now has it’s own short form ceeb, for those who CBA to say CBA.
While acronyms seem to have the most acceptability across age groups, shortened forms of individual words are used both in speech by young people and by journalists attempting to sound up-to-date, often in a self-conscious or ironic way.
Thus The Guardian tells us that, ‘Beyoncé and Cheryl sported his dresses with amaze (amazing) metal bits,’ while Grazia magazine, urging its readers to watch a popular TV talent show remarks as an aside, ‘Although appaz (apparently) you already are’. Other text words used in this way include obvs (obviously), totes (totally), blates (blatantly) and soz (sorry).
In a strange twist, some of these abbreviations are now being used as the basis of longer words. For example, we learn from a website dedicated to fashion for the larger woman that ‘Boyfriend blazers are amazeballs!’. Similarly, gamers are keen to boast of a roflstomp – a decisive victory based on the text acronym for Rolling On the Floor Laughing.
So is this phenomenon harming the English language? Well, despite one well-known journalist complaining about ‘the SMS vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago’, more serious examination would suggest not. The eminent linguist David Crystal explains that texting conventions rely on a good knowledge of spelling and an ability to play with words, both of which are beneficial to conventional forms of writing. Indeed, far from being harmful, a recent study of 8-12 year-olds found texting to be associated with strong performance in literacy.
It should probably not surprise us to see the abbreviated language of texts migrating both into our speech and into other written media. If something is easy and convenient, it is likely to catch on. And whether we like this kind of language or not, we can be reassured that all those people tapping away with their thumbs are honing rather than harming their language skills.