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VOL. 35 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 8, 2011

OMG! OED likes initialisms

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Never let it be said that the “Oxford English Dictionary” staff is unaware that some people want to mark themselves as – well, what would the word be?

Hip? Nah, that’s too ’50s. Mod? Nah, that’s too ’60s. Cool? Rad? In the know?

Whatever!

I offer the following from a page labeled “Latest Update” at oed.com:

“For the March 2011 release of ‘OED Online,’ we have selected for publication a number of noteworthy initialisms – abbreviations consisting of the initial letters of a name or expression.”

By the way, that is as good a definition of “initialism” as I have seen. You’d think these folks are in the business of defining – wait a sec! They are in the business of defining, aren’t they?

Some of the newly added initialisms – OMG and LOL, for example – “are strongly associated with the language of electronic communications (email, texting, social networks, blogs, and so on).”

The two referenced items stand for “oh my God, gosh or goodness” and “laughing out loud.”

These “join other entries of this sort: IMHO (‘in my humble opinion’), TMI (‘too much information’), and BFF (‘best friends forever’),” as well as others in the OED.

But next comes the kicker from the OED’s site:

“Of course in such a context initialisms are quicker to type than the full forms, and (in the case of text messages, or Twitter, for example) they help to say more in media where there is a limit to a number of characters one may use in a single message.

“OMG and LOL are found outside of electronic contexts, however; in print, and even in spoken use [citation omitted], where there often seems to be a bit more than simple abbreviation going on.

“The intention is usually to signal an informal, gossipy mode of expression, and perhaps parody the level of unreflective enthusiasm or overstatement that can sometimes appear in online discourse, while at the same time marking oneself as an ‘insider’ au fait with the forms of expression associated with the latest technology.”

Overstatement? I’ve been accused of that.

Unreflective enthusiasm? I’ve exuded my fair share.

But frankly, I have never (until now) thought of myself as an insider au fait. You?

The OED’s prose goes on:

“As such usage indicates, many people would consider these recent coinages, from the last 10 or 20 years, and associate them with a younger generation conversant with all forms of digital communications.

“As is often the case, OED’s research has revealed some unexpected historical perspectives: our first quotation for OMG is from a personal letter from 1917; the letters LOL had a previous life, starting in 1960, denoting an elderly woman (or ‘little old lady’ [citation omitted]); and the entry for FYI … shows it originated in the language of memoranda in 1941.”

Might it be said, then, of language that what goes around comes around? Or does it just hang around until a new generation rolls in, grabs it up, and claims it for their own?

And then, of course, they bandy it about with such zeal, relish, and vigor that, sooner or later, the OED staff decides to put it in the dictionary!

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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