LOL-Face-MemeWe may be seeing the death spasms of lol, and few will mourn its passing. Emerging a couple of decades ago as an initialism for laugh[ing] out loud, it suffered misuse through most of its brief life by well-meaning parental units who construed it as lots of love. Since the millennium it has devolved through irony to sarcasm until it arrived, as Katie Hearney at Buzzfeed points out, at meaninglessness.

What’s brought lol into prominence recently is its appearance in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s e-communications, in situations where the supposed meaning of the term renders the accused bomber eerily heartless: Lol those people are cooked and the like. As it turns out, Tsarnaev was most likely referring, not to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, but to members of Westboro Baptist Church who picket funerals; and the word cooked here most likely means “crazy” or “high from marijuana.” So the message, translated—“Laugh out loud, those WBC people are crazy”—isn’t quite as chilling as it first appears.

Still, no one is laughing, out loud or silently, and few have laughed alongside lol for years. Its chief use has becomes sarcasm—magnified, as Urban Dictionary points out, by spelling the initials phonetically (Ell oh ell real funny joke). My colleague Anne Curzan has pointed out this application of lol, and my students take her one further. “It can be difficult to see sarcasm in a text,” one student emailed me, “but the lol helps it come across.” Another wrote, “We understand that abbreviations are mainly for ditzy teenagers, so we think that using it now can be seen as a joke. Everything is done ironically in our generation.”

The term has become, in other words, an interjection, similar to well, yeah, really, and other terms and phrases that begin, end, or interrupt speech without meaning anything:

Well, it’s a long way to Tipperary.

Yeah, I don’t know if I want to go.

It’s a pretty day, really, but I’m not up for a picnic.

Let’s get together later lol.

It strikes me, though, that what my students call irony or sarcasm (and what another student named “the crutch of the verbally retarded”) has the same provenance as most of the lol uses listed in Buzzfeed. That is, whether it starts a sentence or ends a sentence, whether it expresses “This is not a joke” or “Did you get that?” or “I’m trying to flirt with you,” the use of lol boils down to Buzzfeed’s No. 8, “I am uncomfortable with my feelings and expressing them.” Isn’t sarcasm often a smokescreen for this very discomfort? Don’t other interjections often convey—albeit without a leftover reference to laughing—the speaker’s feelings of awkwardness or ambivalence? Such avoidance is understandable among young adults; one student described lol as “a comforting word between awkward teens who don’t understand emotion in text.” But even those of us who have never typed lol in social communications have been known to spring for irony as a mask.

Which brings me back to the pathetic spectacle of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. We don’t know much about him, and his texts and tweets are unlikely to paint a full picture of his psyche. But however “chilling,” “cold-blooded,” or “dark” that picture ends up being, one thing seems clear from the lols sprinkled through his social communications: he was distancing himself from emotions he might otherwise have felt or expressed. His last tweet, “I’m a stress free kind of guy,” takes such ironic distancing to its limit.

John McWhorter writes that lol “no longer ‘means’ anything. Rather, it ‘does something.’” I take his point in terms of grammar. But we shouldn’t be too quick to empty lol of its meaning. When a laugh becomes a smirk and “out loud” is reduced to cryptic silence, lol can mean SOS, the Good Ship Sincerity lost in a storm of sarcasm.

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