How To ... Refresh your social media language savvy

2012-12-11 14:11

Listen in on any conversation involving under-20s and you’ll be totes mystified.

Language is undergoing a revolution due to social media. You’ve got to LOL.

If someone calls you a Joe Jonas, best check the state of your eyebrows – you probably have enough fuzz on them to knit a soft quilt.

omg, did you hear BBM has made it into the official Collins English dictionary? LOL, my BBF hadn’t heard about it until I inboxed her and then she Facebooked about it later and had lots of likes…

Know what this means? Bet you do. Bet your grandmother and her friends do too. And if they don’t, they need to totes get with the programme, like it or unlike it.

The phenomenon that is social media is changing many things – jobs, news distribution and consumption, shopping, communication, you name it.

But by far the most controversial change is what it’s doing to language. It’s hard to bring up social media without at least one person complaining about how it’s ‘destroying language’, how kids don’t know how to ‘speak properly’ – and as for spelling, pah!

They have no idea how to spell. Yet there was a time when our held-on-pedestals foremothers and fathers were taught to spell phonetically.

The powers that be decreed it would be easier for them to become literate if they wrote things down as they heard them – so special was speshul, institution was something like instityushun, language was langwidge, dictionary was dickshunry and so on.

That was acceptable then and social-media speak is fast becoming the norm now.

It’s official

Even dictionaries are catching on. BBM (that’s BlackBerry Messenger, in case you’ve been living under a rock, LOL) in Collins is defined as ‘an instant messaging application for BlackBerry devices’.

It also says it can be a noun, as in ‘Did you BBM me?’ and a verb, ‘I BBMed her.’

The Oxford English dictionary has added OMG (‘oh my God’), LOL (‘laugh out loud’) and the first-ever symbol, the much-used

And then there’s UrbanDictionary.com, a smorgasbord of social-media lingo delights – although the spelling often sucks, ironically, and a lot of the definitions are appallingly crude.

But they have a cute way of defining the difference between the various social media platforms:

Facebook: I like eating doughnuts.

Twitter: I am eating #doughnuts.

Instagram: Here is a Polaroid-esque photo of doughnuts.

YouTube: Here I am eating doughnuts.

LinkedIn: My skills include doughnut eating.

Pinterest: Here is a recipe for doughnuts.

UrbanDictionary.com also has all sorts of words that have become commonplace thanks to mediums such as television. Take ‘artard’, an incorrect way to pronouce ‘retard’, taken from South Park.

Also spelt r-tard, you can use it on anyone you like when you believe they’re acting dumb. So you could say: ‘OMG, IMHO you are an artard.’

Don’t want to type out a full sentence? Acronyms have taken over the web. There’s ONTD – ‘on no they didn’t’; SMH – ‘shaking my head’; LMHO – ‘laughing my head off’ and JFGI – ‘just f***ing google it’ (when someone asks a stupid question).

And if someone calls you a Joe Jonas, best check the state of your eyebrows – you probably have enough fuzz on them to knit a soft quilt. But at least that can be sorted out with a pluck or a wax – if someone calls you a Chinnifer you’re in more trouble.

Chinnifer, UrbanDictionary.com will have us know, is a nickname for Jennifer Aniston, ‘derived from her massive chin which seems to engulf her entire face’. So a Chinnifer is ‘a walking chin’.

And if you’re both a Joe Jonas and a Chinnifer, you’re really in trouble.

You’ve got to laugh (right, Gran?). And you’d better, because there’s no getting away from social-media speak. LOL and OMG are hardly even considered abbreviations anymore and are so widespread it’s becoming harder to pin them to any particular age group.

They’re used in adverts, on cards (OMG! It’s your birthday!), on the covers of magazines and on TV.

To a die-hard prescriptivist this might spell disaster, but to social network users it’s all part of making your identity as a user of what’s becoming a primary means of communication.

Like slang, it’s a way of indicating belonging, and also of having fun. Gloom and doomers can say what they will, but the creativity of these words is undeniable.

Take LOL – what started out as initials has become a word in its own right which can be used as a verb (I lolled), a noun (we had a LOL) and an adjective (what a LOL guy).

It has also become a discourse marker where it has very little meaning at all, similar to the use of the word ‘like’ (‘hey, LOL, how are you?’)

Social media has also opened up a new way of interacting with people and with it a new way of discussing that interaction.

It’s normal practice these days to follow someone without freaking them out, to tweet about something without seeming crazy (well, unless you’re Charlie Sheen or something), to like something by pressing a button.

Words that have an established standard use are being adopted and given new meaning that social media users have to acquire and learn to use if they want to be part of what’s going on.

Which all boils down to this: if you own a smartphone, you have to not only learn the lingo, but use it too. And if you’re a member of the more traditional-language brigade who baulks at the idea of an abbreviation, a bastardisation or a made-up-wordisation, get a load of this: LOL was apparently conceived way back in the 60s when it was an acronym for ‘little old lady’.

Maybe not as widely or as creatively used, perhaps, but still. Good for a LOL.

» Kirsten Whitfield is a Master’s student in linguistics at the University of Cape Town.

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