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

Academics explain the psychology behind the internet phenomenon. 

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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 freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh