How Evolving Communication Technology Changed the Context of ‘LOL’ Within the Common Lexicon

In a fascinating clip from his 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival talk, esteemed author, Atlantic contributor and Columbia University Linguistics professor John McWhorter eloquently explains how the term “LOL” has evolved over the years with the constantly advancing tools of communication. Whereas originally the term literally meant “laughing out loud” in its Usenet days, with texting and social media, the term has become a bit more nebulous and used more as indication of comfort and amusement.

In very early texts if somebody used lol or haha they meant that something was genuinely funny. It meant laugh out loud. And gradually, that evolved into meaning not that you were laughing out loud, but a kind of subset of what laughter is about which is softening, which is easing circumstances between people, such that lol came to mean don’t sweat it, I’m not being severe. LOL ended up creeping in and replacing that kind of involuntary laughter because texting to a large extent is oral.