Show Hide image

Why are “smol puppers” cuter than “little dogs”?

Academics explain the psychology behind the internet phenomenon. 

It is often said that the internet is a kingdom for cats. But although grumpy and/or keyboard playing felines have dominated our desktops since the dawn of the dot com, in recent years, man’s best friend has battled for the throne. Puppers – often smol, so very smol puppers – are taking over the internet.

For those not in the know, a pupper is a small doggo, and a doggo is a big pupper. These two terms – if you haven’t already guessed – are internet language for “puppy” and “dog”, and have both become memes in their own right. A “smol pupper” therefore, is online speak for a “little dog”, which is excellent, brilliant, and all things wonderful, but leaves us asking: just why the heck is saying the former so, so, so much cuter than the latter?

“The practice largely derives from the craziness of the English orthography system, where the same sound can often be spelled multiple ways,” explains Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

“Think of threw, through, and true. In the US, we’re used to seeing road signs saying “No thru traffic.” Drivers get the message, presumably faster than if they had seen “No through traffic.” It’s then little surprise to see the word small – as in ‘smol pups’ – spelled with an ‘o’ rather than the prescriptive ‘a’.”

As well as getting the message across faster, the playfulness of mischievous misspellings gives us a frisson – or a little psychological kick – argues Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don’t Understand. This echoes the way that many online jokes are considered funnier when they are misspelled or lack punctuation.

Tannen also thinks the exclusionary nature of the language makes it more enjoyable, arguing: “When the spelling is nonstandard – as with smol for small – it feels like ingroup talk. We're doing things differently between us than everyone else does it out there.”

But although smol puppers are relatively new, the trend behind them isn’t. Hugh Rabagliati, a Chancellor's Fellow at the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, compares the phenomenon to LOLCats, early 2000s memes of cats expressing misspelled sentiments as “I can has cheezburger?”.

Via Wikipedia

“The misspellings and grammar reinforced the cuteness and craziness of the image, along with proving an orthographic cue to each cat’s wacky accent,” he says. “LolCats wouldn't have been very amusing if every caption had begun with a stage direction to speak in a funny voice.”

Via Reddit user derek_92

Smol puppers definitely echo LolCats, as the language alludes to the way we might imagine our adorable, bouncy little friends would speak. The Twitter account WeRateDogs™ adopts the voice of such a pupper, with broken sentences and the occasional emphatic jamming of the Caps Lock key. In fact, if you examine Google Trends for the terms “pupper” and “lolcats” you can see the former became more popular than the latter mid-2015, suggesting it filled some basic human need for internet cutes.

The phenomenon can also be compared to baby talk. “Maybe the language is similar to the language that kids themselves use, full of little grammar errors and incorrect vowels,” says Rabagliati, explaining why we might be programmed to find it cute. “But to my ear, the errors in LolCats seem most similar to those of people trying to speak English as a second language.” This, too, explains the enjoyment found in the text, as comedy foreign accents (yakshemash, Borat) have historically been considered humorous. 

Smol puppers, it seems, are therefore cute for many, many reasons, but if we could only chose two, they would be these. Firstly, they are smol. And secondly, they are puppers.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Flickr: M.o.B 68 / New Statesman
Show Hide image

“I begged him to come home”: Breaking the taboo around texting the dead

Many people text dead loved ones to cope with their grief – but trouble arises when they get an unexpected reply. 

A month after Haley Silvestri’s dad died from a heart attack, she texted him begging him to come home. In the middle of the night Silvestri’s 14-year-old sister had found their father, with his lips and mouth blue, lying on the kitchen floor. “There was nothing there anymore, just a dead body,” Silvestri says. “My father had his first heart attack months before and seemed to be doing OK. Then, this happened.”

In the very first episode of CSI Miami’s seventh season, the protagonist – Horatio Caine – fakes his death. For the first 15 minutes of the episode, the viewer believes the character is truly dead, as the camera lingers on Horatio’s body face down on the tarmac.

Silvestri and her father used to enjoy watching the show together. After he had passed and she realised she would never see her “best friend” again, she picked up her phone. “I texted my dad begging him to come home,” she says. “I begged my dad to please be ‘pulling a Horatio’.”

"My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over" 

In texting her father after he had died, Silvestri is by no means unusual. No official figures exist for the number of people who use technology to message their deceased loved ones, but Sara Lindsay, a professional counsellor, clinical supervisor, and trainer, says it is “more common than we think”.

“I see it as a modern and contemporary part of the grieving process,” she says. “I think in a way it's very similar to visiting a graveside, in that the bereaved are reaching out, particularly in the early days, because it takes a long time for people to process the reality that this person has now gone.”

Karlie Jensen, 18, texted her friend immediately after she found out she had died in a car accident. “I texted her as soon as I woke up to the news from my mom that she had passed. My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over waiting for a text saying it wasn't her, that my mom didn't know all the facts, and maybe she was just hurt.” Jensen also called her friend and begged her to respond. “I did it because I couldn't let go and couldn't accept she was gone from my life forever,” she says. Karlie continued to text her friend while also calling her voicemail in order to hear the sound of her speaking again. 

Karlie (right) and her friend

After her first text to her deceased father, Silversti also began texting him once a week. She fell into depression, and on her worst days messaged the number. “I think it helped initially because it felt like I was personally writing a note to him, that I knew he only was gonna see,” she says. “I did it because it was my attempt at pretending he was still here and could text me back.”

Lindsay, who has over a decade’s experience of bereavement counselling, emphasises that this behaviour is in no way unhealthy. “I think on the whole it's a very healthy part of grieving, particularly in the first year where the bereaved faces agonising days without their loved ones,” she says. “There is just so much loss and change in their life that’s out of their control, I see this aspect of texting as a small way of being able to reach out and alleviate that pain. That person is suddenly now not there but how they feel about that person hasn't changed.”

"I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text"

Despite being normal, however, using technology to talk to the dead is a behaviour we rarely – if ever – hear anything about. If the words “texting the dead” make it into the media, they are usually followed by a far more sensationalist “and then they text back!!!!”. Yet although messaging the deceased is popularly seen as the stuff of horror movies and trashy headlines, in reality it is simply a new, modern way to grieve.

Via Mirror.co.uk

“The first time I texted him I was on my bus on the way to school,” says now-20-year-old Dylan Campbell about his cousin Josh, who passed away from leukaemia. “I didn't have many friends so I had no one to talk to. I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text and someone would reply or I would get something out of it.”

Campbell continued to send his cousin texts for a few weeks, “kind of like a diary”. He says he did so because he regretted not seeing Josh more up until his death, and “had a lot of things to say” that he’d never had the chance to. Linsday says texting in this way is a very healthy way of completing unfinished business. “There might have been something they've never said to their loved one that they want to be able to say and texting is a very normal place to do that.”

"Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return"

Nonetheless, Lindsay notes that texting the dead can become unhealthy if grief becomes “stuck”, and the texting replaces normal communication or becomes a long term compulsion. Unlike Silvestri and Campbell, Jensen continued to text her friend in the hopes she would text back. She admits now that she was in denial about her death. “Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return” she says. “I don't know if it helped trying to contact her or hurt worse because I knew I'd never get a reply. I wanted a reply.”

Quite frequently, however, this reply does come. After a few months – but sometimes in as little as 30 days – phone companies will reallocate a deceased person’s phone number. If someone is texting this number to “talk” to their dead loved one, this can be difficult for everyone involved.

“This story doesn't have a happy ending,” says Campbell. “After a few months someone from that number called me and yelled at me to stop bothering them – it was really heart breaking.” When Silvestri texted her father to wish him a happy birthday (“Saying I hoped he was having a great party up in heaven”) someone replied telling her to never text the number again. “I was pissed off,” she says. “Just block my number if it was that serious. This was a form of therapy I needed and it got taken away because someone couldn’t understand my hurt.”

Indeed, behind the sensationalist tabloid headlines of "texting back" is a more mundane - and cruel - reality of pranksters pretending to be the dead relatives come back to life.

"Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality"

Silvestri, Jensen, and Campbell have never spoken to anyone else about the fact they texted their dead loved ones. Lindsay says that a fear of seeming “mad” combined with cultural phenomena – like the British stiff upper lip – might make people reluctant to speak about it. There is also a stigma around the way much of our modern technology is used in daily life, let alone in death.

This stigma often arises because of the newness of technology, but Christopher Moreman, a philosophy professor and expert on death and dying, emphasises that texting the dead is simply a modern iteration of many historical grieving practices – such as writing letters to the dead or talking to them at their graves. “I don't think the process of grieving is much changed, even if new modes of grieving come about due to new technologies,” he says. In fact, if anything, the differences between old and new ways of grieving can be positive.

“One important difference is in the sense of proximity,” explains Moreman. “I can text a loved one from anywhere in the world, but I can only visit their grave in one specific location. In another way, texting has the same structure whether I am texting someone who is alive or dead, so a sense of proximity also exists in the experience itself.

“Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality. Some people may complain that new technologies allow us to ignore the reality of death, but there isn't any evidence that one way of grieving is more or less healthy than another.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496