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The 19th-Century Roots of LOLspeak and Spam

Posted October 12, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: Internet language LOL spam

Peculiar language has long been a dividing line between the old and young, and today’s generation is no exception. Specifically, young people who grew up accustomed to online messaging and texting are probably more likely to use acronyms like LOL, ROFL, LMAO, YOLO, lolwut and the like.

While it might seem like LOLspeak is unique to the internet, it was actually preceded by a nearly two-century old trend. A peculiar political and journalistic climate in Boston, Mass. during the 1830s led to the creation of several humorously named clubs, most of which had no members and never met. These included the Anti-Bell Ringing Society (supposedly formed as a reaction to a Boston ordinance that no citizen could ring bells publicly without a bell-ringing license), the Association of Presidents of Bankrupt Insurance Companies, and the Mammoth Cod Association. The “clubs” were made up of young, educated jokesters who used their associations to announce non-existent meetings in local newspapers.

A major part of these inside jokes was the use of overblown acronyms understood only by club “members.” For example, the Boston Morning Post ran this short news item in 1838:

Eliot Brown, Esq., Secretary of the Boston Young Men's Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Indians, F.A.H. [fell at Hoboken] on Saturday last at 4 o'clock, p.m. in a duel W.O.O.O.F.C. [with one of our first citizens]. What measures will be taken by the Society in consequence of this heart rending event, R.T.B.S. [remains to be seen].

Of course, there was no duel—simply a young Bostonian screwing with the press. Sometimes, the editor got the joke and responded back with a column incorporating his own made-up acronyms. Interestingly, this led to the first printed use of the acronym “O.K.” in 1839. There’s still fierce debate over the true meaning of that term, but many believe it arose humorously to stand for “oll korrect,” since some humorists used purposefully misspelled phrases to come up with wacky acronyms, like N.C. for “nuff ced” or K.G. for “know go.” The O.K. acronym got a major boost during the 1840 Presidential election, when Martin Van Buren’s campaign manager took to calling him “Old Kinderhook” and urged citizens to “vote for O.K.” So while most of these ridiculous acronyms faded away from common use, as LOLspeak might in the future, O.K. stuck.

E-mail spam—another annoying trend seen as unique to the internet—also has its roots in 19th-century history. In 1864, an unlicensed London dentist mass-sent a telegram advertising his services to hundreds of wealthy Londoners at once. At that point telegrams were used only for urgent matters or emergencies, so many recipients panicked before opening the envelope and finding an ad. This single message—the first electronic spam—caused a small uproar, as evidenced here by the letter to The Times.

Hey, at least now we have one-click deleting and spam filters—luxuries far from available in the 1860s.

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Guru

Join Date: Jan 2006
Location: Tamworth, UK.
Posts: 1528
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#1

Re: The 19th-Century Roots of LOLspeak and Spam

10/13/2017 6:35 AM

It is just shorthand that most of us get to know, and maybe use. The acronym takes over and the words themselves get forgotten. It ranks alongside a form of jargon that organisations have always introduced to mystify their profession.

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Guru

Join Date: Oct 2008
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#2
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Re: The 19th-Century Roots of LOLspeak and Spam

10/14/2017 10:17 PM

AFAIK, it's just a fad. LOL.

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