I hate myself lol: Why “laugh out loud” means everything but

Semantic shift sees the once accurate acronym adorn sentences about depression, suicide, and self-esteem.

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On a typically busy day on the New York City Subway, Joyce Jude made an enemy. As she clambered onto the rush-hour train, she jostled the body of a man “20 years older and one foot taller” than her.

“He proceeded to kick the back of my leg,” the 25-year-old photographer tells me now. When she took out her headphones to confront him, the man started to shout and swear at her. No one helped. “I’m physically alright but this was incredibly traumatic for me mentally,” she says.

Yet when Joyce told her friends this story on social media, she used a word you might not expect. “I can’t believe someone fucking kicked me and yelled at me on the subway and people saw it happen and did nothing while I cried like a fucking idiot,” she began her tweet. She ended the update: “What the fuck is wrong with this world. I hate myself lol”.

In the early 2000s, “lol” meant “laugh out loud”. The acronym allowed people to express an emotion that was invisible online, although it quickly stopped reflecting the truth. “Lol” helped people to pretend to laugh out of politeness or awkwardness, and then became an easy, disinterested throwaway to end a conversation.

Now, a quick Twitter search shows that “lol” has been used a multitude of times to end the following sentences:

“I’m so depressed lol”

“I had an anxiety attack lol”

“I want to kill myself lol”

In these instances, no one is actually laughing about their own mental health. “Lol” has become a linguistic shock absorber – used to dampen the impact of overly-emotional statements.

“I said ‘I hate myself’ and ‘lol’ because I felt embarrassed for crying in public and having a train full of people see what happened,” says Joyce, who describes herself as self-deprecating and sarcastic. “I suppose I was serious about what I had said – because physical assault is a very serious issue – but I wanted to lessen the impact of the words and make myself appear less dramatic, if that makes sense.”

“Lol” is now so commonly used in such circumstances that what Joyce says does make sense. But how did this happen? How did “laugh out loud” evolve into “sorry for making things awkward”?

“Almost since the dawn of social communication via email, IM, and texting, ‘lol’ has been morphing in meaning,” says Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

Baron explains that lol is sometimes a “phatic filler” – the online equivalent of saying “uh huh” while another person is talking. “Other times it’s intended to convey sarcasm,” she says. “If you text me ‘The stock market just crashed’ and I text back ‘lol’, probably neither of us really thinks the financial nose dive is funny – just the opposite.” Another example Baron gives is of a friend telling another friend they have been injured. If you replied “lol what?”, you wouldn’t be laughing or being sarcastic. “Lol could mean ‘I feel for you’ or ‘Good grief!’,” Baron explains.

In 2018, then, “laugh out loud” means anything but. The acronym has historically changed meaning – a process called semantic shift – meaning it isn’t that surprising that in 18 years “lol” has become a buffer word used to soften shocking statements.

“I had never even noticed that I use ‘lol’ this way until you pointed it out,” says Dahlia Johnson, a 22-year-old student from Florida. On Twitter, Dahlia recently wrote: “are you ever unable to get out of bed for three hours and then realize that it’s just the depression lol”.

“It definitely does act as a buffer,” Dahlia says, “because a sentence like that without the ‘lol’ can raise some genuine concern.” She explains that she jokes about her mental health because it helps her deal with it by acting as a distraction.

“The ‘lol’ in this situation is a way of saying ‘yes, I’m dealing with something bad right now, but don’t worry about me because I’m laughing it off and I’ll be fine’.”

Dahlia and Joyce aren’t alone. A lot of young people use “lol” (and occasionally “lmao”) in this way. Although the internet breaks down a lot of barriers and therefore allows us to be candid about our mental health, we may still be inclined to feel awkward. In such scenarios, “lol” becomes a self-aware way of sharing something without worrying your friends or without sounding dramatic. It is so prevalent that one student, when caught up in a high school shooting, used it when texting her friends from the locked down school: “I’m having a panic attack lol.”

“I think people say ‘lol’ because it's become habitual; the word has lost its meaning and has been reduced to be a mere filler word,” Joyce says, explaining that she and her peers don’t really think about why they use “lol” like this – they just do it. “It’s almost gotten to the point where text messages can be so overthought and misinterpreted that if you don’t say ‘lol’ after something that can be easily misconstrued, the other person may receive your message in the wrong way.”

It is useful to remember, then, that if you see a young person tweet “I’m so anxious lol” or “I feel depressed lol”, they aren’t actually joking (or laughing out loud).

“The challenge with ‘lol’,” Baron says, “is that when you use it, you need to hope the person with whom you are communicating understands which nuanced meaning you have in mind.”

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