Internet slang meshes into everyday language

So this week’s trend report is about to get pretty meta. As in, a discussion of hashtags will occur in a column titled #trending. Try to stay with me, folks: This is some serious stuff.

Recently, Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake created a parody video that features them using the word “hashtag” in spoken conversation. Of course, their usage is purely farcical, meant to highlight the absurdity of people whose vernacular is actually overrun by Internet slang.

Internet slang has invaded spoken language probably since the dawn of AOL Instant Messenger, or as we fondly called it, AIM. We would joke about the silly abbreviations we used yet, for convenience’s sake, we continued to use them.

Acronyms such as “brb” and “lol” littered our chat windows like discarded lunchbox items in the cafeteria. Shortening a word by eliminating vowels was just, like, so necessary, you know?

The video is funny and even gives hashtags a useful hand gesture to indicate one’s employment of the symbol. The true genius behind the video, and the reason it became so popular after it aired, is that people recognize there is a grain of truth to the parody.

Our lives, and our language, have become dominated by social media. We pay attention to trending hashtags on Twitter because we want to attract more followers, to catch the eye of other tech users and gain credibility. By using a hashtag, you’re reinforcing your own social awareness.

In creating a hashtag, the chief aim is to gain attention through wit and cultural references. As a result, people use them excessively and, as the video shows, obnoxiously, to prove to others that they are clever. Questlove’s “#stfu” reflects what any normal person would think when confronted by the typical amount of hashtags employed by social media users.

Before its appearance in spoken language, hashtags infiltrated other social media platforms. Originally, it was a tool of Twitter but it soon crossed over to Instagram and has now entered the realm of Facebook.

As a result, the parody of people using “hashtag” as a real word isn’t too far from a possible reality. Who’s to say this will not happen in the future? Take a minute to think about your own vocabulary. You might be surprised at what terms pop up.

When you are surprised by something, have you ever exclaimed “OMG?” If the answer is yes, don’t feel alone. I do it and I’m sure many other people do as well. Even if the use of this Internet acronym is purely ironic, you’re still using it. I’ve even caught myself saying “brb” in real life as a means of excusing myself from company.

Irony is the doorway to doing embarrassing sh-t. You know that one pop band you secretly like that’s on your iPod “just because it’s funny?” That is irony at work. Irony allows people to do silly things as a means of satire — which is exactly what Fallon and Timberlake’s video does.

A friend of mine in middle school didn’t understand what “lol” stood for and he mispronounced it as though it rhymed with “wall.” Ever since, I’ve used this mispronunciation in conversation to signify I think something is humorous on the most basic level. It’s actually pretty similar to how Justin Timberlake uses his endless “lol” hashtag.

What started out as something ironic and not serious has entered my vocabulary and become something I say without thinking. But I’m not the only language-obsessed nerd who pays attention to these trends. Even the Oxford English Dictionary has gotten in on the action, which shocked me since I understood these abbreviations to be inventions of online chat rooms.

Two years ago, “LOL,” “IMHO” and “OMG” were all granted entries in the OED, a gold standard for word etymology and meaning. According to the lauded dictionary, these linguistic shortcuts belong to a category known as initialisms. Surprisingly, these initialisms have histories that predate the Internet. “OMG” makes an appearance in a 1917 letter and “LOL” once stood for “little old lady.”

Does this rising trend signal the degradation of the English language? Def not. Language is constantly evolving. It’s like a living, breathing being that must adapt to the needs of its users — a lot like the Internet, actually.

We can’t expect language to stay the same. If it did, we might still be speaking in Shakespearean verse or, even worse, Middle English. If you’ve never experienced the frustration that is reading Chaucer, consider yourself lucky — it is a trying experience that will make you wish the man had just used a damn spell-checker.

Whether you refer to them as “initialisms,” acronyms or just annoying trends, these modern word formulas are just the next step in the evolution of language. They’re almost reminiscent of George Orwell’s Newspeak from 1984. Minus the eerie socialist connotation, Newspeak and hashtags both strive for brevity and efficiency.

For a wordy writer like me, formulating a tweet is torture. Keeping a thought under 140 characters is never an easy feat. It feels restrictive. In a way, though, it does help to concentrate the message in fewer words and more content.

With any luck, language will evolve gracefully, as it has done in the past. The trend of using hashtags as a means of expression can stay as long as thoughtfully constructed sentences can stick around as well.

Well, g2g. Bye.


Nick Cimarusti is a senior majoring in English and Spanish. His column “#trending” runs Wednesdays.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickCimarusti