Five DIY Language Games for Online Learners of All Ages

Lately, the Internet has become an indispensable resource for teachers and professors as we surf through websites and social media looking for examples, links, lessons, or just something to break the ice, lighten the mood, and remind us all of our shared humanity while online.

While searching, we might also discover a secret that most avid Internet-surfers already know: The Internet can make online learning productive, fun, individualized, human-like, illuminating, and even important.  To that end, I dedicate this post to just five online language games—five of the infinite ways the Internet invites us into moments of language wonderment.  As you engage in these naturally occurring language games, you may think you’re “just” surfing the Internet, but, I guarantee, online learning will happen—to make that more obvious, I’ve titled each of these games with an important mini-lesson about language you will learn as you partake, and added some post-game reflections for online learning bonus points:

Game 1:  Words Create Our World—The Caption Game

This is probably the most “classic” of all language games, created by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously coined the term “language game” to describe everything we do with words.

Examples: This picture was first used by Wittgenstein to show how language shapes our world. So, what is it?

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 1.57.15 PM

If I tell you this is a “duck” you probably see the image one way. If I tell you it is a “rabbit,” then what do you see? A rabbit? Wittgenstein used this ambiguous image to illustrate how the words we use create the world we live in.

This ingenious demonstration of the power of words can be illuminated in many ways. Internet surfers can find similar examples (multiplying like rabbits) online. The famous “Rubin vase,” pictured below plays a similar game with viewers and language users:

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 2.06.43 PM

Another well-known example, this image of a “young lady,” takes us into the realm of the uncanny.  What—in addition to the young lady—do you see here?

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 2.06.02 PM

Are you stumped? In both these examples, it might be easier to see the unnamed image if someone captioned it for you:  In the “Rubin vase” image, do you see “two faces” in addition to the vase—once you read those words?  In the “young lady” drawing, do you also see an “old woman with a wart on her nose”—if the picture is captioned that way?

I think these pictures are cool, but if they strike some readers as old, stuffy, and esoteric, consider this more up-to-date observation: We play the same language game any time we caption a photo for Instagram or Snapchat! To illustrate, this cat picture (or any cat picture), might be described in infinite possible ways:


I could caption this “Cat on a loveseat” or “Cat contemplating the meaning of life” and viewers may see this photo very differently depending on which of those descriptions accompanied it.

Play!  Now that you’ve seen a few examples of how words create our world, go ahead (if you haven’t already!) and search around for more of these ambiguous images online.  You might start by looking for “optical illusions.”  See how the words you use to describe each picture can change what you see!  Then try playing with some of your own photos on social media.  How do you turn the image into a certain kind of event by captioning it one way or another? (“The Life of The Party”?  “My Annoying Brother”? “Dinner with Friends”?  “The Last Supper”?)

Reflections: Lately, in the age of COVID-19, using language to talk our reality into being has been a staple on Zoom or other video-conferencing media.  If we call the now-familiar Zoom grid-of-faces a “Graduation,” that’s what it is!  Call it “Happy Hour” or a “Celebration” and participants will see it as such.   In this way, Wittgenstein (and now the Internet) shows us that language is not just a collection of words that describe things, but itself a collectively created “form of life.”

Game 2: Translation is Not a One-To-One Language Mapping—The Song Lyrics Google Translate Game

As The Caption Game above illustrates, words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to reality.  Nor, as this Song Lyrics Game will illustrate, do they have one-to-one correspondence to the “same” words in other languages.  Just like a caption for a picture, a translation of a passage will also, always, involve some selection and interpretation.  The interpretive nature of translation becomes most obvious when we try to learn a new language—and particularly when we try to fudge a little and use Google Translate instead.

Examples: Language teachers across the globe have tried to impress upon their students this simple fact:  Google Translate is not the best shortcut to language learning.  And, social media have provided us with some of the best “teachable moments” for this lesson. For years, the Youtube site “Translation fails” has been posting google translations of songs.  By running English-language song lyrics through Google Translate, transforming them into many different languages, and then back into English, this YouTuber arrives at silly—and oddly illuminating—results. Her first smash hit was the Frozen lyric, “Let it Go!”  After she ran this song through several languages on Google Translate and then back to English, the inspirational “Let it go!”refrain had transformed into the more defeatist, “Give up”:


Updating for new songs and styles, the same YouTuber has now come out with another viral success, based on Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” hit, in which the dark and gloomy incantation, “I’m the bad guy,” punctuated by the now-infamous, “Duh,” transforms to “I’m biscuits. Huh?”

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 1.35.56 PM

Play! Now try it yourself.  Take a verse from your favorite song and with the “help” of Google, translate it into a few different languages.  Then translate it back to English. What do you get? Keep going until you get the funniest version, then entertain yourself by singing this out loud! Record it for your friends. You might even want to post it on YouTube! What sort of comments do you receive?

Reflection: Translating with Google to surprise yourself with the silliest possible lyrics can be a blast. It’s also a great illustration of how impossible it would be to line up the world’s languages word-to-word to create precisely the same description an object—or each other.  Each language seems to do things a little differently.  And given Wittgenstein’s observations about language as a “form of life,” this makes sense: Why would we expect words from different languages to line up one-to-one when words don’t line up one-to-one with anything else they are supposed to describe?  It’s precisely this slippage that makes language a shared accomplishment—and not a code that a computer algorithm could understand or recreate.

Game 3:  Appearances of Linguistic Accuracy can be Deceiving—The Magic Bilingual Idiom Game  

 As the Song Lyrics Game above illustrates, there is often some slippage between one language and the next—and between any word and whatever it is attempting to describe.  As literary theorist Jacques Lacan would put it (but in French), there is an “incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier”. There is no one-to-one alignment—either between language and things or between one language and another language.  For that reason, if we translate through enough different languages, and then back to English, we can arrive at “I’m biscuits” from “I’m the bad guy.”  But this slippage gets even more mind-bogglingly wonderful when Google Translate does arrive at a translation that looks right, but still doesn’t work! Revealing this invisible slippage, puts the “magic” in this Magic Bilingual Idiom Game, drawing attention to the often-overlooked aspects of linguistic knowledge that multilinguals hold.

Examples:  One of the best types of idioms to entertain ourselves with on Google Translate might be those phrases for collections of things:  Herds of horses, packs of dogs, clutches of owls, pods of dophins, etc. Often, different languages have different expressions for these.

What’s called a “school of fish” in English, for example, is called a “banco de peces” in Spanish. But what happens if we enter “banco de peces” in Google Translate?:


Of course. Banco=Bank, de=of, Peces=Fish.  The individual words are translated “accurately” enough.  But the resulting expression makes no sense.  Bank of fish? How can we ever fix this error? It would be confusing to a monolingual English speaker if a monolingual Spanish speaker were to use the expression “bank of fish” for “school of fish”.  And, it would be confusing to a monolingual Spanish speaker if a monolingual English speaker used “escuela de peces” (school of fish) for “banco de peces”.  But if two bilinguals used these translations, they would likely know what each other were talking about.  Their invisible multilingual knowledge would reveal itself!

Google recognizes that their translation app needs the wisdom carried within bilingual users to hone its functionality—this is a form of bilingual expertise that computers alone could never learn. Therefore, Google has built a feedback tool into their translation tool: Click on Google Translate’s dropdown menu and it will offer alternative translations and even a chance for you to “improve this translation.”  You can select the best translation and it will be transformed on your screen, just like this:

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 1.59.29 PM

If you care to contribute to the human improvement of Google Translate, calling on your own multilingual expertise, chime in, and Google Translate will get better.

But even if humans improve infinite entries in Google Translate this way, the app still will not work perfectly.  Many expressions and their translations simply cannot be fully illuminated through a computer app.  Consider, for example, the French expression, “cherchez la femme.” Like “bank of fish,” this sentence translates easily in a one-to-one, faux-accurate way, but it loses much of its resonance along the way.  I learned the phrase, “cherchez la femme,” many years ago from a friend in Hollywood who had spent a few years in Paris dubbing movies for a living. He loved saying “cherchez la femme,” and I soon came to get a vague sexist feeling from it. When I asked what it meant, he would give a long, meandering explanation about “noir” movies and how any mystery can be explained by finding the woman at the bottom of it. Knowing no French at the time, I just learned the phrase as a chunk that sounded something like “shayrshayl’phahm” and came to associate it with heartbreakingly sexy French women and intrigue.

Only many years later did I look the phrase up on Google Translate, which conveniently gave me the word-for-word translation, “look for the woman”:


And, the simple, “look for the woman,” translated right back into “cherchez la femme”:


On the day I learned that “shayrshayl’phahm” simply translated to “look for the woman,” (and vice versa) I was a little disappointed.  It seemed so mundane.  But, it was also inaccurate. The simple, faux accuracy of word-to-word correspondence conceals the different forms of life these expressions create in English or French.  That’s precisely the magic of the Magic Bilingual Idiom Game: It reveals all the important aspects of living through multiple languages that the faux accuracy of one-to-one translation conceals.  Consider how important precisely this knowledge would be in the context of The Caption Game (above)!  Captioning a photo with “Look for the woman” would lead to a very different viewing experience than would “Cherchez la femme”!

Play! Now it’s your turn to try out your own multilingual knowledge. Think of an idiom you know in one language—then, using Google, translate that into another language you know, then translate it back.  How does that work for you?  Often, you may get the exact same expression.  But how do you know whether it has the same meaning?  In this game, you will need to call on your own invisible multilingual knowledge (and possibly that of your multilingual friends) to check the layers of meaning and precisely how or if Google Translate fails you.

Whenever you sense something amiss, try to fix Google Translate a little and click on their dropdown menu to “improve this translation.”  Of course, with expressions like “cherchez la femme” this might be more difficult. Fortunately, not all human knowledge can be reduced to a Google algorithm! Take note when this happens, revel in your own multifaceted language expertise, and share the good news with a friend.

Reflections: Expressions like “cherchez la femme” render Google Translate almost pointless—but they also serendipitously illuminate the magic of language and the power of multilingualism. Because Google attempts to translate even socioculturally complicated expressions in a one-to-one way, a person needs to know multiple languages and the forms of life they invoke to be able to know when Google Translate leads them astray.  For this reason, Google translate is always soliciting feedback from its users.  And, over the years, it gets better!  Now, it translates many idioms without using a one-to-one correspondence because it has been drawing on the everyday expertise real multilingual people have volunteered—and which you may have already contributed to by playing this game!

Game 4: Subverting Genre Expectations is Funny—The Fake Amazon Reviews Game

Mistranslated song lyrics (like those we’ve played with in the Song Lyrics Game) come off as funny or absurd because they subvert our expectations for the genre: When we expect a dark incantation like “I’m the bad guy” and get “I’m biscuits” instead—we just have to smile.  A similar happy twist occurs now and then with the Amazon product review genre.  Even though we may doubt the veracity of many of these reviews, we tend to read them in hopes that most contributors sincerely report the facts:  If this is a good product or an awful one, reviews will say so.  Precisely this practical expectation for the honest and earnest review on Amazon makes fake reviews a brilliant departure.

Examples: You may already be familiar with one of the biggest magnets for fake reviews, the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, pictured here:


The reviews of the banana slicer have far more feedback than reviews of any other product on Amazon I’ve seen.  Over 58,000 readers came across the review below and “found this helpful”!


After all, who hasn’t for decades “been trying to come up with an ideal way to slice a banana”?

The sociolinguist Camilla Vasquez has written extensively about satirical online reviews like these, and just recently she alerted me to another comic product review for a popular commodity in our age of quarantine: Yeast. This very enlightening review rose to the top:


Play! Now, try to find another “fake” review!  What language game is it playing instead of sincerely reviewing a product?  Poking fun at that product? Practicing PUNmanship?  Venting about another topic? After combing through these and having a few good laughs, pick a product you want to review and try your hand at the “fake review” genre.  Go ahead and post it and see how the world responds!

Reflection:  For me, fake reviews are life-and-language-affirming. They affirm that people care about enjoying language and a few laughs with fellow humans more than diligently buying and reviewing whatever product crosses their screen.  Sometimes the act of sharing one’s sense of humor with the world provides people with more satisfaction than simply consuming that world!

Game 5:  We Live in a World of Others’ Words—The Word Wonderment Game

If you’ve been playing all the games above, you may by now be feeling flush with the power you wield with your words—the power to create a world, but also to genre-shift and tear it down! You may also feel humbled by the shape-shifting quality of those same words and our inability to pin down their meanings. Words are indeed powerful, but they also belong to no one person. And no dictionary or reference tool or app like Google Translate can provide a word’s decisive meaning.   As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has written (but in Russian), “We live in a world of others’ words.”  The Word Wonderment Game is about exploring how our words take on new meanings when others take them out into the world and all its diverse forms of life. The Internet is made for this type of exploration.

Examples:  You can start the Word Wonderment Game with any word or phrase you’ve heard lately that captured your fancy.  It may be something new you overheard from teens (“soft girls”) or college kids (“natty light”), a new word for the age of COVID-19 (“face covering”) or a local word you’ve overheard and think you understand by never really fully “got” (“jawn”?).  You might even see an intriguing word chalked up on a sign at your local bodega.  “Hoagie” for example, is often used in Philadelphia as if everyone knows what it means—and as this picture shows, Philadelphians are venturing out to pick up freshly made hoagies even during quarantine:


But what if you were new to Philadelphia and you didn’t know this word?  Or what if you’ve lived here forever but simply want to explore how other people use this word?  Via the Internet you can take a shortcut through the world of others’ words.  Start with a google search:


Already, Google’s dropdown menu suggests we’ve entered a world in which people associate hoagies with comfort (“haven”) and immediate gratification (“near me”).  The  list of links proffered next offers solid indications that Philadelphia is hoagie-central. Next, provides a selection of strong opinions, and the “top definition” offers more information about the history of the word itself:


A life-like quote in the second entry mentions that you can get hoagies at “da Papi store”:


And this entry authoritatively mentions an exception: “meatball” is the one filling that requires “sub” or even “sandwich” and not “hoagie” as the sandwich word:


These entries and the dialogue included, may set you wondering:  Do I even know how to say the word “hoagie”? To explore, head to YouTube, with a new prompt:  How to say “Hoagie”. You’ll get a long a boring tutorial—but you’ll also find many other videos in which “hoagie” is under discussion.

After this, you might find yourself reading about “The Great Hoagie Debate”, and even filling out an online poll about it (I admit it.  I voted “yes”):


As you churn through these different perspectives on hoagies, you’ll likely also encounter more words you’ve never known before. Wawa, hero, meatball sub, da Papi store, and so on.  You’ll also start feeling like some people in Philadelphia really care about hoagies.  A lot.  It’s not just another word for sandwich. The word “hoagie,” like any other word, is no one person’s alone to define or wield—but one shape-shifting word among many in a world of others’ words.

Play!  You may be spending more cross-generational time in conversation these days. This means you may hear new words you don’t often (or ever) use yourself—but that people you know may care about a lot.  Ask about those words!  What do they mean to the speaker?  In what situations would they use them? Inevitably, you will be running across unfamiliar words everyday (“namean?”). Or familiar words that have taken on new meanings (“face covering”). Follow up on those words!  What “forms of life” do they invoke?  Who uses them?  What do they tell us about society?  Surf the Internet to find all the nooks and crannies these words inhabit and the ways their meaning changes across contexts. “Slippage” between words and meaning doesn’t only occur when we’re using google translate.  Even the word “hoagie” has an indeterminate meaning.  So be sure to look into all the different ways our world is made up of others’ words.

Reflection: The Word Wonderment Game revels in the fact that any time we speak, we are participating in a world of others’ words—and others’ perspectives.  As you learn about different words and about the forms of life that surround words you thought you knew, you’ll likely run into controversies. You may find yourself feeling strongly about the use of certain words. You may feel that certain words should not be used.  Why not? Our strong feelings about words can lead to important conversations about our differences. Through these conversations about language, we can also collaboratively build new meanings together, so that we live in a shared world.

Now, next time you’re on zoom, teaching a class, or celebrating the end of the week, “share your screen”!  You may be able to play some of these language games with others and spark more talk about language—in the process, you’ll be collaboratively shaping the world we’re inhabiting, both online and off.

Please share your reflections on any of these games below.  If you want more language games, let me know!  There are many more that I cut from this short list.  What other language games do you play on the internet?  Please share!

The Age of Zoom Meetings for a person who stutters

As many of us continue to adjust to working (or studying) from home, there’s been a proliferation of pieces about digital communication in today’s Age of Zoom Meetings. Despite the obvious benefits offered by these platforms during a pandemic, both researchers and “laypeople” have explored why exactly Zoom meetings can be so frustrating. Technological failures and glitches clearly play a part, but many think there is something more fundamental to the medium itself at work. Linguistic anthropologist Susan Blum, for instance, had some especially insightful thoughts about why Zoom—which she sees as based on a “folk model of how conversation works” (ouch!)—is so exhausting. She argues that videoconferencing is “nearly a replication of face-to-face interaction, but not quite, and it depletes our energy.” I couldn’t agree more, especially as the novelty of making your background a Minecraft world fades away. Zoomxhaustion, zoomtigue—whatever you want to call it—is real.

Especially for people who stutter.

While people who stutter (PWS for short) face unique communicative challenges in all parts of their life, I’ll be honest: as a PWS myself, the Age of Zoom Meetings is especially difficult. I’ve spoken with several friends who stutter, and they corroborate my feelings of exasperation with videoconferencing vs. in-person communication. Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings.

[Before diving into the “why,” a quick introduction to stuttering. Traditionally, stuttering is conceived of as a communication disorder involving disfluencies in a person’s speech (often repetitions, blocks, or prolongations). Scientists don’t really know what causes stuttering, but they do know it is basically neurological and physiological, not psychological. While children who develop a stutter often “grow out of it,” those who start stuttering after early childhood rarely become non-stutterers. Here’s a link to a page created by the National Stuttering Association for more information about stuttering. Because of its current relevance, here is a great piece about Joe Biden as a person who stutters. Finally, for people into linguistics, here is a thought-provoking reframing of stuttering as a speech variety.]

Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings  

The disembodied voice

Most of the challenges faced by PWS result from the paucity of (or in the case of audioconferencing, the lack of) visual information. This constriction of communication—the inability to harness our full communicative toolbox, in a sense—can have frustrating ramifications for both the PWS and the listener.

First, in cases where the videoconference is the PWS’s first interaction with someone new, the dearth of visual information increases the likelihood that the listener will not understand what’s happening during a disfluency—they will not be able to “read” the person as a PWS. The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service (when in fact, we are just stuttering!)

This adds a new and debilitating layer to the challenges PWS face. During in-person interaction, while we are still often misunderstood, we don’t have to worry about a stutter being seen as a technological glitch (humans don’t have mute/unmute buttons, after all–though I’m sure many of us could think of several people we wish that did!). Secondary behaviors associated with stuttering, things like (involuntary) gestures and hesitations, help communicate the message that “Hey, I stutter” and “give me a moment.” These are all are stripped away in Zoom-mediated communication, leaving PWS to face the stark choice of explicitly “outing” themselves, or appearing technologically maladroit. Neither is a pleasant option—the latter is a lie and makes us look incompetent, and the former can be emotionally laborious and put the interlocutor on the defensive. These misunderstandings, in the way that they derail the conversation and require interactional “repair,” are draining and put the onus on the PWS to constantly explain themselves.

The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service

Similarly, even when interacting with people who know you stutter, the lack of visual data can make it difficult for a PWS to signal the start and end of their speaking turn. When a PWS begins speaking, especially in a circumstance where they anticipate stuttering, they often (again, possibly unconsciously) use nonverbal cues like changing their posture, gaze, or beginning to make hand gestures. All humans do this, of course, but PWS might rely on them as a way to hold the floor when they are having a speech block and want to prevent others from talking over them. Bodily gestures also help to signal the end of a speaking turn, and when it is OK for a speaker to start talking without feeling like they are interrupting.

Few of these communicative resources are available to PWS in conferencing. In my own experience, I speak much less on Zoom calls because I don’t have time to begin a speaking turn. Stuttering most commonly happens at the beginning of the utterance, and by the time I start talking, someone might already have the floor. In cases where I do really want or have something to say, I might use a filler word like “um” or “well” to hold my place as I begin. This isn’t ideal; especially in the business world, it can come across as “unconfident” or “unpolished.”

One of the most interesting unintended consequences I’ve observed in the Age of Zoom Meetings is indicating the end of a speaking turn as a PWS. In “real life,” I find people rarely talk over me when I am having a disfluency—because they see what is going on. In online conferencing with people who know I stutter, they almost always treat me with respect—but they sometimes simply don’t know when I am finished. So they will say “Sorry to interrupt you, Jacob…” when I have actually finished my turn. Of course I appreciate their intentions, but the effect of this apology is that it disrupts the flow of the conversation, makes me feel singled out, and can even put pressure on me to “keep speaking” if the assumption was that I wasn’t done. Other writers have already remarked on how often we are forced to apologize for interrupting on Zoom, and all of this is only exacerbated for a PWS.

Zoom is also marked by the death of backchanneling. We simply don’t do this over Zoom—the playback from a “room” of people saying “Uh-hum” and “Mhm-hm” is horrendous. We also can’t really use nodding to signal we are listening, because our face is probably just a 1”x 1” sliver of someone’s screen. Backchanneling is an essential part of human communication, and the lack of it is difficult for everyone. But again, it makes things especially hard for PWS—many of whom rely on it to keep going during especially difficult disfluencies. (I have been saved many times by an especially empathetic listener in the audience who, by virtue of maintaining eye gaze with me, lets me know that they hear what I am saying.)

Finally, from a psychological perspective, it is difficult for me as a PWS to think that my entire identity on a Zoom meeting is constricted to my “disembodied voice.” PWS are obviously much more than their stutter, but over Zoom one can feel reduced to just that condition. We have less opportunity to display our passion, our confidence, our articulateness, when all we are is a stuttering voice floating through the ether. Research in digital communication backs up this feeling of being “judged”: delays on conferencing systems of even 1.2 seconds made listeners perceive the speaker as less friendly.

Zooming into the future

Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.” 

Many of points brought up here don’t just apply to PWS. Rather, they more broadly illuminate the limitations of digital communication in its current state. I don’t know if or how these shortcomings can be improved upon, but I do hope we can build empathy for some of the challenges they might pose for PWS and the infinite others who might be misinterpreted while Zooming.

Some things, of course, do help. Being on camera, and having others display their faces, is generally more helpful than audioconferencing—it softens the impact of some of the things mentioned above, but by no means removes them, especially in larger groups. Having empathetic people around also makes things easier for the PWS. But the fact of the matter is that digital communication is simply not built for people with communication disorders. Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.”

I would love to hear others’ thoughts about The Age of Zoom Meetings. What affordances or challenges does Zoom bring to who you are?

A New Lingua Franca for COVID-19

A generation from now, we will look back on this time and remember our shared language–a shared language that citizen sociolinguists have made visible and viable.   During the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have all been learning new words and phrases, and while we haven’t been able to share each other’s space and live company, we have been able to create a new global Lingua Franca for the COVID-19 era.

A generation from now, we will look back on this time and remember our shared language

To illustrate, let’s take a cursory scan of new words being popularized, circulated, re-created, and joked about these days.  COVID-19, of course, has been coined in the last few months.  Is there anyone on the planet who does not know what this refers to? And Merriam-Webster has already compiled lists of suddenly frequent vocabulary words we all have been hearing, including virus, contagious, infectious, superspreader, and quarantine. The York Times also just published a useful glossary covering these terms, throwing in state-of-emergency, incubation, containment, and R-naught.

I appreciate these careful compilations, but these are words that scientists of infectious diseases have known and been using for a while, as experts.  Everyday people experiencing this pandemic have simultaneously been creating an all new vocabulary of our own. By re-thinking some of these terms from the scientific community, having conversations about these very words, and by endlessly generating and popularizing more words related to this pandemic, we have been able to make sense of our own world in our own words, together—while maintaining a safe distance from each other.

The phrase Social Distancing, for example, has baffled some, coming across as an oxymoron.  I’ve had numerous conversations in which people puzzle over how we can be “social” and “distant” at the same time, and heard friends snappily assert that we need to be physically distant but remain socially connected.  But we keep using the phrase anyway.  And, it has expanded from noun phrase to adjective: We now have social distancing workouts, social distancing car circles, social distancing study halls, and even social distancing fun runs. We can still catch The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah. I just googled “Social Distancing” and the first phrase that popped up on the search dropdown menu was social distancing baptism (and the first image featured a minister aiming a super-soaker at an infant).

During all this social distancing, Universities across the globe have been using the most popular video-conferencing platform, Zoom, to take learning on line, and this has led to more word play: Zoomed out, for example, to describe that zoned out feeling and glazed expression one might get after a day of meetings and classes on Zoom. That is, if you weren’t Zoombombed by a hacker, popping into your meeting uninvited, with inappropriate messages and images.

On top of these new words, certain place names have become part of everyday conversation, and now resonate with us all.  Wuhan is a huge city in China with a population of over 11 million people—more than New York, Tokyo, or London. But until COVID-19, most Americans had never heard of it. While the  coinage of Wuhan virus gave a one-sidedly negative perspective of the city,  more nuanced associations with Wuhan are emerging—as illustrated by this “The Wuhan I Know” comic recently created by Laura Gau, gaining popularity on Twitter, and featured on public radio.  Now nearly everyone in the US probably knows the name of that city, and many of us can even picture its location on a map, inside another newly familiar location, the Hubei Province. Similarly, the Lombardy Region of Italy, and even New Rochelle, New York have become commonplace in conversation.  We’ve all expanded our repertoire to include these distant—and not so distant—place names.

But we’ve also been sharing and resurrecting terms about the time we spend at home: Procrastibaking (a combo of procrastinating and baking that some are trying out for the first time) has been reappearing and featured in more social media posts.  As has the need for no-knead bread (who knew?) and pizza kits (now being picked up from favorite pizza joints to be assembled, safely, at home).

And more and more we’ve been popularizing words for new activities we are doing together (apart), by tacking the word virtual onto it all.  Now we have virtual happy hour, virtual brunch, and Zoom’s virtual background.  My son, still at college on the West Coast, but living off-campus, just had a virtual zoom birthday celebration with us, his East Coast family, along with his West Coast housemates, whom he calls his social distancing team.

We’re all in this together, and our language shows it

Some of these new words and phrases may evoke the specter of loneliness, and some of these place names may draw a momentary infamy they never asked for, but this is how we, as a society, develop a common relationship to our new, uncommon conditions.  Even in the best of times, much of the way we all experience the world together is by sharing language with each other.  As we use and talk about words together, those words themselves become our shared experience. Even just hearing certain words again and again, as they morph little by little–Zoom, Zoomed out, Zoom-bombing, social distancing pizza kit, social distancing friendship, social distancing–gives us a sense we are all living life as one collective.  In the time of COVID 19, this type of shared language experience provides a form of existential hope.  We are all in this together—and our language shows it.


Elbow, Elbow Pit, or Cough Pocket?

The human elbow is getting a lot of attention these days, as we collectively fight the global spread of COVID-19.

But what does that word “elbow” refer to?   Am I the only one who has spent most of my life using “elbow” to refer exclusively to the pointed part that sticks out when we bend our arm?   I don’t think so. Ask any person on the street to point to their elbow and I bet you they’ll point to that pointy part.  And yet…

Cough into your elbow

The part of our anatomy where we are supposed to be coughing these days (if we don’t have a tissue) has been confusingly called the “elbow.” This suggests (and this suggestion is born out in ubiquitous public service announcement illustrations) that the “elbow” is the part of our arm that gets enclosed when we bend our arm.

Screenshot 2020-03-15 16.39.15

This contradicts everything I have envisioned about elbows for my entire life.

Bump elbows in greeting

On the other hand (or the other side of the elbow), we are also supposed to “bump elbows” instead of shaking hands or hugging—apparently a time-tested greeting that has been called on during epidemics in the past, and has now been resurrected for COVID-19.   This is reassuring to me—I can visualize bumping elbows—the pointy part of our arms.  Wikipedia provides this crystal-clear illustration of elbows touching in “a stylish bump in 2008”:

Screenshot 2020-03-15 16.50.50

But it would be really hard to cough into that pointy part of our elbow. So why are people calling the inside of our elbow the “elbow.”

Maybe we just don’t have a word for it, and it’s just too clumsy to say “the inside of your elbow”.  Is it called the “elbow pit”?  I googled that and found others had been wondering the same thing: The search bar auto-filled with “Elbow pit what to call it?”

But Wikipedia tells us there is a specific word for that part of our body: the cubital fossa or… elbow pit.

Screenshot 2020-03-15 16.37.41

This wikipedia definition of “elbow pit” (aka cubital fossa) as anterior to the elbow was bolstered as my search continued. As I was googling “elbow pit,” the search bar also offered up another top search suggestion: “elbow pit tattoo.” This is what they look like—they are not on a person’s elbow.  They are nestled in the elbow pit (where we should also cough):

Screenshot 2020-03-15 16.56.04

But for some reason, the public service message is not “Cough into your elbow pit.”  Why not? Why have people insisted on calling this simply the “elbow”?

Well, the analogy to a smelly armpit may just be too much for genteel Americans to handle.  I mentioned this term, “elbow pit,” to my 12-year-old daughter and she said simply, “Ew. I find that very disturbing.”

Others seem to have also picked up on the disturbing aspects of the phrase, “elbow pit,” as represented, of course, on, where elbow pit is defined. The top definition seems modest and descriptive:

Screenshot 2020-03-15 19.45.14

But the third definition goes directly to the problem of armpit associations:

Screenshot 2020-03-15 19.47.20

Ew, indeed!  The commonsense resistance to a bodily analogy like “elbow pit” is borne out further on Reddit, where at least one thread suggests referring to the elbow pit as, instead, “elbow vagina.”

So, maybe a more expansive working definition of “elbow,” to include the “elbow pit,” has merit. It seems that people who design these public service campaigns would rather be a little imprecise than end up in the “elbow pit” zone of associations.  Plain old “elbow” is simpler and conveniently euphemismistic, nipping any of the “elbow pit” or “elbow vagina” undertones in the bud.

Maybe it’s okay, sometimes, to be a little imprecise in our language if the precise language just leads us down a scary path?  People might be more likely to cough into something called “elbow” (inaccurately) than to cough into the more accurately named “elbow pit.”

And what if we are talking to kids—those prime germ-spreaders?  We don’t want to call it the elbow pit and immediately hear a class of 25 saying “EEEEEEEWWWWWWWW!” Definitely bad PR for good practices.

Cough pocket

Well, sometimes we just need to think a little longer (or ask a citizen sociolinguist!) to come up with the most effective phraseology.  Fortunately, this Seattle pre-school teacher, Ms. Laurie Goff, seems to have nailed it! She calls it the “cough pocket,” and tweeted a handy video demonstrating exactly what coughing into that cough pocket will look like:

Screenshot 2020-03-15 17.50.20

Her accompanying explanation is friendly and convincing:  “That’s a cough pocket.  It’s on your body! It’s free, it’s easy, and it’s always with you!” Now this video (and not a collection of germs from all her preschoolers!) is going viral, spreading the word about where to cough–arguably more effectively than any inaccurate, euphemistic use of “elbow,” or accurate, but icky, “elbow pit” ever could.

So to the question, how are we supposed to cough into our elbow?  Ms. Goff provides an answer:  Use your cough pocket!

What are your experiences with the words “elbow,” “elbow pit,” and “cough pocket” (and of course, the “elbow bump”)?  Please comment below!














Screenshot 2020-01-28 10.31.06Lately, Joe Biden’s language has been under the articulateness microscope.  When there are substantive policies to be debated, why do we hold up articulateness for critique in political discussions? Biden seems competent enough, and experienced. Does it really matter if he is articulate?  Short answer: It depends on what people say about it.

So, let’s take a look:  How are people talking about Biden’s speech?

Joe Biden’s manner of speaking has been called “choppy,” “rambling,” “halting,” and there are plenty examples to illustrate this as noted in this October 2019 New York Times article:

“People are being killed in western, in eastern Afghan — excuse me, in eastern, uh, Ukraine,”

“I would eliminate the capital gains tax — I would raise the capital gains tax”

“So there’s a, there’s — my time up?”

Still, Biden’s popularity has in part been fueled by this choppy, rambling, and halting style, as evidenced by these Iowans quoted in the same article:

“I love it. It appeals to the common people, working class, Americans, everybody!”

“I know he falls over some of his words, we all do.”

“Oh, big deal! He speaks from his heart.”

So, is he speaking poorly? Or is he brilliantly connecting with the common people? As discussed in a previous post, in certain situations inarticulateness can be a form of competence. Until recently, Biden’s choppy and halting delivery—with the occasional profane word thrown in—has worked well for him, projecting a down-to-earth image.  But, the claim that his disfluencies appeal to “the common people, working class, Americans, everybody” may be an overstatement. Even those common people and working-class Americans are starting to get worried about Biden’s disfluencies.  When the New York Times spoke to union leaders in Western Pennsylvania, those hard-working Americans insisted that their priority was to support a candidate who would maintain coal jobs.  Biden was their guy—but they had concerns. Not because he was wavering on his stance on coal and fracking, the issues that most concerned them, but because he didn’t seem very articulate. One of them summed up:

“You know it scares me.  I love Joe Biden, but lately he’s not as articulate. What’s Trump gonna do?”

For these union leaders, being inarticulate has become Joe Biden’s biggest vulnerability.  If Biden couldn’t get the Democratic nomination, some of them were considering voting for Trump and, as union leaders, advising their union members to do the same.

According to some accounts, Biden has been verbally awkward for decades, and for a long time Biden’s gaffes and hesitations, and even his profanity have made him likable.  But the union leaders had a different take for 2020: Right now we don’t need a friendly guy.  We need someone who can challenge Trump.  As the concerned union leader quoted above asked, if we put a hesitating, pausing, mis-speaking Biden on stage with Trump, “What’s Trump gonna do?” (Implied answer: Rip him to shreds). In the context of that discussion, it seems Joe Biden has pushed the limits of competent deployment of “inarticulateness.” If he can’t more seamlessly make his case, he simply won’t be able to stand up to Trump.

Others have discussed this as a problem of age.  He’s just too old to keep up—and his inarticulateness is the primary evidence of this. This argument is made clearly by a New Hampshire voter quoted in this Vox article:

“I don’t think he can take on Trump for that reason. I don’t think Biden is quick enough and sharp enough to take him on. His story is incredible, but he’s just too old.”

Biden’s inarticulateness is increasingly being talked about not as a sign of relatability and political competence, but as a sign of age, incompetence, and inability to beat Trump.  How did that happen?  Did he really start becoming more inarticulate? Is his brain degenerating?

His brain may be degenerating, but let’s be frank: That’s not what matters in this election.

Consider another politician famous for his folksy speech and mannerisms: Ronald Reagan. He was elected twice. Despite an increasingly simple speaking style and decreasing vocabulary during his time in office, citizens deemed his style relatable.  In Reagan’s case, much of his repetition and reliance on stock lines may have been caused by a brain stumbling through the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.  Still he was a successful candidate, winning two terms and then ongoing status as a beloved former President. He was even dubbed, “The Great Communicator.” Why didn’t people focus on his inarticulateness–his slowing of speech, his waning vocabulary (now shown to be empirically measurable)? Because the people discussing his speech didn’t talk about it as a problem.

At one time, that folksy interpretation of Reagan’s speech style was enjoyed by Biden too.  But now the word articulate has come to haunt Biden’s campaign.  As the very different cases of Biden and Reagan suggest, how we perceive someone’s inarticulateness is more a product of a context and everyday conversation than of that individual’s brain–even if the examples of halting speech and bumbling frustration coming from that individual are as real as the recordings replayed again and again on national television.  It’s not the speech itself that’s giving Joe trouble, but the way people talk about it. So, back to our original question: Let’s say Joe Biden is inarticulate.  Does it matter? Not on its own.  But all those people out there discussing Biden’s speaking problems—and the journalists reporting their remarks—are making it matter more and more each day.

Being “articulate” (or not) probably does matter for the success of a presidential candidate.  But how we talk about it is what makes it matter.


Being inarticulate is highly under-appreciated.  In many cases, rather than a sign of carelessness or miseducation, being inarticulate may instead be an important building block of sociality and even democracy in a diverse society.  Consider, for example, the following much-maligned expressions deemed “inarticulate”:

You know what I mean?

Like, um…


These are expressions that have been derided by English speakers, teachers, parents, and elders, as a mark of younger generations’ lack of backbone, intelligence, or will.  Taylor Mali’s spoken word performance mocking these hesitant words and the mannerisms that accompany them has circulated widely on YouTube.  In under three minutes, Mali brilliantly delivers his entire monologue using these expressions and piling onto them all the hesitant rising intonation in the universe:

In case you hadn’t realized? it has suddenly become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about? or believe strongly in what you’re like saying?

Invisible question marks and parenthetical you-knows? And you-know-what-I’m sayings?  have been attaching themselves to our sentences, even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions?

Are we like the most aggressively non-committed generation to come along in like a long time?

Mali’s spoken-word performance almost seems to be celebrating these ways of speaking.  Immortalizing them.   But he concludes by imploring listeners to “Speak with conviction,” delivering this line with conclusive falling intonation, and a facial expression of drop-dead seriousness.

This call for confident articulation of our convictions makes sense—in certain contexts.  Dozens of you-know-what-I-mean?s throughout Swedish Activist Greta Thunberg’s speeches would likely lessen her impact on worldwide climate awareness. “Invisible question marks” and ubiquitous likes would be surreal on the presidential debate stage.  Fluent, confident, unhesitating speech—speaking with conviction—remains the preferred mode in political debates or speechifying in Davos.

But last week I asked some graduate students in my class—many of whom are international students, all of whom are multilingual and have lived in different parts of the world—to think more broadly about being articulate.  Specifically, I asked, are there certain situations where being inarticulate is more useful?

An answer shared by several students took me by surprise:  Paradoxically, phrases like those maligned by Taylor Mali can also help a person sound like a competent language speaker.

One student from China mentioned how, upon arriving in the United states, she was surprised to hear so many “likes” among the native speakers here.  She started using like and you know what I mean to fit in.  As she put it, using these phrases does double duty:  It makes you sound like you’ve been living in the US for a while, and simultaneously gives you time to search for a word, or think through the rest of your sentence—always useful when using a new language.  As soon as she learned the phrase you know what I mean, it became a crucial bridge to successful communication with local English speakers.

A student who grew up in Philadelphia, but had spent the last year living in Brazil, had a similar perspective on speaking Portuguese there.  The crucial word for him had been tipo. Another student remembered that when learning French, her instructor, frustrated with all the students’ “ums” told them to please use the proper French “euh” instead.

The examples began to flow—what about saying o sea or este in Spanish? Or something like ba in Swedish? A quick google search yielded lists of filler words in dozens of other modern languages. This duolingo forum about filler words contains an outpouring of citizen sociolinguistic expertise and appreciation (and a little Taylor Mali-like opprobrium) including these enthusiastic examples:

Screenshot 2020-01-24 13.49.30

As these stories and outpourings of multilingual “filler” words suggest, being “inarticulate” in this way may be an important step in joining a new language community—and even sounding “native-like”.  For a new speaker of any language, speaking “with conviction” may not only be impossible, but undesirable. The priority may instead be fitting in, and using words like like and you know what I mean, can be the most competent way of entering into new conversations.

What forms of being “inarticulate” function well for you?  Or do you find ums, likes, tipos, and you know what I means annoying? Please comment below!

Citizen Sociolinguistic Arrest: Update that Syllabus, Boomer!

The beginning of January brings a new year, and, for anyone involved in the University, a new semester.  And, with that, after the relaxed, snack-filled and beverage-saturated days of the holidays, many a lament about the return to a more frantic pace and the need to ramp up for new students. My colleagues and I are spending the first week or two of January putting our syllabi together, readying ourselves for that first day, when we meet relative strangers and are responsible for connecting with them deeply and building a community of inquiry together.

In preparation for that anticipated first day of class, most of us will be updating our syllabi not only with new material—the latest journal articles in Cinema Studies or Sociolinguistics or History of X—but also with new language to talk about that material. Let’s face it (boomer) without a little updating in how we talk about history, sociology, linguistics, education, and ourselves, there may be no lesson at all.  We may be stopped in our tracks on that first day of class in what I call a “citizen sociolinguistic arrest.”

What is a citizen sociolinguistic arrest? It’s very much like an ordinary citizen’s arrest—one citizen calling another out for violating the law—only in the case of a sociolinguistic arrest, the citizen calls out the other for a violation of their language. You have probably witnessed or even participated in at least one citizen sociolinguistic arrest over the holidays. Maybe your sister referred to her niece as a “freshman” in college, and she was reminded that “we call them first years now.”  Or your grandmother referred to participants in the Hong Kong protests as “Orientals” and someone gently explained that English-speaking people generally now use the term “Asian” instead.

But the holidays are over now and we’re working on our syllabi.  After leaving our family gatherings, some may be thinking: Can’t we move on and just do our work?  No.  These citizen sociolinguistic arrests are likely to happen in our classes this semester too.  Professors may begin that first session with introductions.  And these may include mention of preferred pronouns. Even if we don’t mention our own, or include a note about our own pronouns in the syllabus, we may be seen as making a choice deliberately not to honor non-binary or non-cis gendered individuals.  As soon as one student introduces themselves with their own preferred pronouns, the choice may become a topic of conversation.

Now readers may be thinking:  Fine, we can talk about pronouns on the first day. But what about the content of the course—can we teach within our areas of expertise without being arrested for the way we talk about our specialty?   No. There are plenty of opportunities to critique content-specific language there too, and lately, I’ve heard some fascinating content specific accounts of citizen sociolinguistic arrests.

In a photography class, for example, one professor, preparing his lectures on Diane Arbus, realized that his descriptions of Arbus’ photos needed updating.  Last year students had citizen sociolinguistically arrested him for his use of the word “transvestite” to describe Arbus’ well-known photographic subjects.  Society has changed regarding trans, non-cis people and our language has along with it. Should we still use the word “transvestite” since it is the one Arbus used?  That’s an open question.  Or is it?  In my own introductory ethnography class, we routinely read Hortense Powdermaker’s account of race relations in Mississippi.  Should we use “negro” now, because it was the word she was using in her time?  In that case, the question seems less open. But the discussion can be important.

Time clearly changes our relationship to these words, and some of us take longer to catch up. Growing up in different parts of the world also affects the way we use the language to describe our specialties:  Another friend of mine, a history professor, realized that the term “world power” could also lead to a citizen sociolinguistic arrest: Referring to Portugal as being one of the great “world powers” at one time, led to a long discussion of many Westerner’s myopic sense of the word “world.”

Each of these citizen sociolinguistic arrests—those that happen with our friends and relatives over the holidays and those that happen in our classrooms and on our syllabi—have the potential to spark important conversations about language, and, inevitably, about why we choose one word or another, and how our different personal histories led us to these choices of words.

There will never be permanently “correct” ways of talking about any of these issues.  We will always be subject to critique, and when being critiqued, humility and open-mindedness usually serve us well.  These discussions of language—across generations, specialties, gender, and many other communities, can be fascinating. Everyone can learn from them.  And as we do so together, we can build that coveted community of inquiry and genuine curiosity within our classroom.  So, just as we always need to update our syllabi, we might also need to update the way we talk about it–but then let’s keep the conversation going!

Have you been the subject of these sorts of citizen sociolinguistic arrests in your classrooms,  your family dinner table, or elsewhere?  Please share in the comments below and let’s keep talking…



田园女权 (Countryside Feminism ) on Weibo: a citizen sociolinguistics perspective

Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post by Peizhu Liu, an Educational Linguistics PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania.  

A year ago,  a newly-coined expression – 田园女权(Countryside Feminism ) –attracted my attention on Weibo, which is one of the biggest social media platforms in China, with over 445 million monthly active users as of 2018 (“Sina Weibo”, 2019). Even though I had already sensed the negative connotation of the expression by reading the online discourse surrounding it, for example,  我不是反对女权,我是反对田园女权 (What I am against is not feminism but countryside feminism), there were still questions that puzzled me: what’s the origin of this expression? What does it mean exactly? Who coined it, and for what purpose?

A thorough search online led me to many possible explanations. For example, according to Feng (2018) and Zhifu (the Chinese equivalent of Quora), the term “countryside feminism” (tián yuán nǚ quán) has a reference to the Chinese “rural dog” (tián yuán quǎn), a breed that is indigenous to China, but viewed as lowly and without a pure lineage. By linking Chinese indigenous dogs with Chinese feminism, the term disparages the Chinese feminist movement as outside the mainstream women’s liberation movement in the West, and attaches to it a connotation as something coarse and unsophisticated.

In addition, Jikipedia (Figure 1), the Chinese equivalent of Urban Dictionary, defines 田园女权 (countryside feminism) as follows: These women fight for gender equality on the surface; however, they in fact only desire the same rights that men have, but refuse to take on the responsibility (“中华田园女权”, 2017).

Figure 1.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 13.56.43

Despite the definitions that I found online, I was interested in learning how this term – countryside feminism – is utilized by internet users on social media. Since Weibo is one of the most popular social media platforms in China, and since it allows people to publicly express themselves in real time and interact with other users they might not know (Programmer, 2018), I chose it as the site where I collected the data.

Research Questions

I formulated three research questions as follows:

  • What’s the connotation of the term 女权 (feminism) on Weibo?
  • What is the definition of 田园女权 (countryside feminism) to Weibo Users?
  • What might these discussions of the terms 女权(feminism) and 田园女权 (countryside feminism) teach us about the status quo of feminism in China?


I posted a survey on Weibo using my own account (Figure 2). The questions in my survey include, but are not limited to:

  • What do you think of the connotation of “feminism” on Weibo? Is it positive, negative, or neutral?
  • Do you know the meaning of “countryside feminism”? What’s the difference between “feminism” and “countryside feminism”?

Figure 2.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.02.12

My goal was to collected 30-50 responses, but what happened greatly exceeded my expectations. Since this questionnaire was re-posted by quite a few influencers, most of whom are feminists, I received 392 comments within the next 24 hours. Due to time constraints, I randomly selected 100 comments to analyze.

Analysis & Findings

For the first research question (what do you think the connotation of “feminism” on Weibo?), I counted the numbers of respondents who hold different opinions and calculated the percentage. The result shows that 52% of the respondents believe that the term “女权(feminism)” has a negative connotation on Weibo; 6% of the people think that the term is positive; 16% of the respondents think it is neutral (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.05.04

For the second question (Do you know the meaning of “countryside feminism”? What’s the difference between “feminism” and “countryside feminism”?), I categorized answers according to the main idea expressed by the users and listed the popular definitions of “田园女权 (countryside feminism)”. The top three definitions are as follows:

  • It was coined by Chinese men as a way to stigmatize Chinese feminism because they feel that Chinese feminism is coarse and vulgar (48%).
  • Country feminists only support women’s privilege, rather than gender equality, and they only want rights but not responsibility (18%).
  • Countryside feminists hate Chinese males, but love European and American males (6%).

In addition, as I visited the home pages of 15 well-known feminist accounts (each has at least 100,000 followers) and pages of 30 respondents who claim to be feminists, another interesting finding emerged: none of their account names include the term “feminism/feminist”. Even in the section of the profile description, the term “feminism/feminist” is rarely found (see figure 4 and 5, for example – they are two of the most famous feminist Weibo accounts).

Figure 4.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.09.25

Figure 5.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.10.24

Conclusion & Discussions

First, the overall connotation of feminism on Weibo is negative.

Second, the most popular definition of countryside feminism given by Weibo users is that “it was coined by Chinese men as a way to stigmatize Chinese feminism because they feel that Chinese feminism is coarse and vulgar”. This definition aligns with the perspective offered offered by Feng (2018) and Zhihu: “By linking Chinese indigenous dogs with Chinese feminism, the term disparages the Chinese feminist movement as outside the mainstream women’s liberation movement in the West”. In my opinion, an “inferiority complex” (Cohen, 2015) which is deeply engrained in Chinese people’s collective memory is reflected in the term of “countryside feminism”. Also, let’s look at the third-most popular definition, which was shocking to me. It says that “countryside feminists hate Chinese males, but love European and American males”. In this definition, not only the “inferiority complex” and “ever-intensifying gender antagonism” (Wu & Dong, 2019) but also the antagonism towards the West are manifested.

In addition, according to her work on online space for feminism in China, Han (2018) pointed out that “feminism” is one of the most sensitive subjects to the Chinese government’s censorship policy, and feminist Weibo accounts which are thought to be too “radical” are very likely to be suspended. A few years ago, a feminist Weibo account: Feminists’ Voice, was silenced because of a post calling for women’s strike on the International Women’s Day (Figure 6).

Figure 6

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.14.33

A few days after the post went viral on Weibo, Feminists’ Voice was suspended. Figure 7 shows the message that was sent to Feminists’ Voice by Weibo.

Figure 7

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.15.36

Under such strict control, it is no wonder that feminists on Weibo seem to avoid using the term “feminism/feminist”. I argue that the strict censorship on “feminism” also contributes to the anti-feminist environment on Weibo.

To sum up, feminism might be stigmatized in various ways all over the world, but according to this analysis, feminism is stigmatized with specific Chinese characteristics within the societal context of China. Furthermore, these online discussions about the terms “feminism” and “countryside feminism” enable us to see a glimpse of the status quo of Chinese feminism. It faces a conflated backlash from the patriarchy, a national inferiority complex, the antagonism toward the West, and the government’s censorship.

Do you have any insights about or experiences with the term countryside feminism?  Please comment below!


Sina Weibo. (2019, December 2). Retrieved from

中华田园女权. (2017, July 23). Retrieved from

Cohen, A. (2015, August 3). China Still Fighting Its Own Inferiority Complex. Retrieved from

Feng, J. (2018, January 20). Hard times for feminists in China. Retrieved from

Programmer, W. C. M. (2018, June 25). What is the difference between WeChat and Weibo nowadays? Retrieved from

Wu, A. X., & Dong, Y. (2019). What is made-in-China feminism(s)? Gender discontent and class friction in post-socialist China. Critical Asian Studies51(4), 471–492. doi: 10.1080/14672715.2019.1656538

Xiao Han (2018), Searching for an online space for feminism? The Chinese feminist group Gender Watch Women’s Voice and its changing approaches to online misogyny, Feminist Media Studies, 18:4, 734-749.



Given or Negotiable?: Korean Family Address Terms on the Move

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Eunsun Lee, a doctoral student in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. 

When you meet someone in Korea, there are several things they will ask you to initiate a conversation. Among many other things such as your occupation and country or city of origin, they will want to know your age, which determines the address term that they can use to talk to you. Age indeed plays a key role in shaping the language you can use with others.

But there is one huge exception to this significant role of age in determining the appropriate address term for use. Below is an excerpt from a newspaper article (Lee, 2018) in Joongang Ilbo, one of the major nation-wide newspapers in Korea.

Park, who is two years in her marriage, complained, “The address terms make it so awkward between family members at holiday gatherings.” Park’s husband has a younger brother and a younger sister, who is 5 years and 6 years younger than Park, respectively. Despite the age difference, Park addresses them as akassi and tolyennim. “I just can’t get used to addressing my brother- and sister-in-law, who are way younger than me, as akassi and tolyennim,” said Park. “I find it bizarre to be using honorifics to them while my husband addresses my younger sister simply as checay.”

So what’s with all these address terms? To give you a bit of the background, below is a table that compares the address terms that women and men are expected to use to address their in-law family and the etymology of each term.

When wife addresses husband’s … Whom? When husband addresses wife’s …
시댁 sitayk (媤宅) ‘Husband’s house’ [+H] Entire family 처가 cheka(妻家) ‘Wife’s house’ [-H]
어머님 emenim ‘Mother’ [+H] Mother 장모님 cangmonim (丈母-nim) ‘Wife’s mother’ [+H]
아버님 abenim ‘Father’ [+H] Father 장인어른 canginelun (丈人-elun) ‘Wife’s father -senior’ [+H]
도련님 tolyennim ‘Young master’ [+H] Younger brother 처남 chenam (妻男) ‘Wife’s brother’ [-H]
서방님 sepangnim ‘Husband’ [+H]
아주버님 acwupenim ‘Older relative’ [+H] Older brother 형님 hyengnim (兄-nim) ‘Older sibling’ [+H]
아가씨 akassi ‘Young lady’ [+H] Younger sister 처제 checay (妻弟) ‘Wife’s younger sibling’ [-H]
형님 hyengnim (兄-nim) ‘Older sibling’ [+H] Older sister 처형 chehyeng (妻兄) ‘Wife’s older sibling’ [-H]

[+H]: with honorific morphemes / [-H]: without honorific morphemes

In a nutshell, if your husband has a younger brother or sister who is significantly younger than you, your familial relationship with them overrides the age factor, prescribing you to use honorific address terms for them. However, notice that the same does not apply to men when they address their wife’s siblings. That is, age is still the most influential factor for using honorifics. They only use honorific terms for your wife’s parents and older brother (and not her older sister—indicating the influence of the gender factor as well).

Park’s remark in the previous excerpt can then be understood as her uneasiness about the asymmetric terms between husband’s and wife’s family members. And she was not the only one to make such remarks; according to a survey conducted with 4,000 respondents nation-wide in 2016, 65% of the people perceived the gender disparity in the family address terms to be problematic (Lee & Kim, 2018). In the past few years following the survey, several national petitions were  posted on the Cheongwadae (the executive office of the President of South Korea) website regarding the problematic address terms that women have to use for their in-law family members.

In response to these visible changes in the people’s perception of the prescriptive address terms, the government agencies such as the National Institute of Korean Language and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced some policy revisions and public campaigns to address this issue in 2018 and 2019. They have made a few suggestions on the alternative terms that can be used in place of the traditional terms. Given the discrepancy between the prescriptive address terms and the terms that people actually feel comfortable with, it was recommended that each family consider using some of the alternative terms to fit their communicative needs.

This move by the government agencies generated tons of commentaries under a number of online media reports. A lot of the commentaries often took the discussion to an aggressive gender conflict, where male commentators bringing up the honorific address terms men use for their brother’s wife as a counter example and criticizing women for overproblematizing and unjustly claiming for a revision of the standard addressing norms. Some of the comments criticizing the move included (translated by me):

  • Just because there is no ‘-nim’ suffix at the end of the terms doesn’t mean that those terms don’t have honorific meanings. There are so many other problematic language practices these days. What a pity that people are picking up on this trivial issue.
  • Why don’t you get rid of all the address terms altogether and just follow the American way of addressing people by their first name? Wonder how you’d feel about being called by your first name by your nephew.
  • The presence of honorifics in the address terms you use is not as important as the amount of respect you pay in your actual interpersonal relationship with the person. Why denounce the address terms? They’re not gonna change so easily any ways.
  • The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family should address other more significant issues than this.

Overall, it seemed that the online commentaries under the media reports were inclined toward a negative attitude to the change. This piqued my interest, as I had initially thought there would be more positive reactions to the change as shown in the national survey results and the number of signers for the national petitions. Is this really what the majority of people think of about this change? How about my family and friends? How would they perceive this change and their own uses of those address terms?

So I decided to conduct my own citizen sociolinguistic interviews with people around me. As a first step, I interviewed my mother, who is in her mid-50’s, positions herself as politically liberal, and most importantly, addresses her husband (my father)’s siblings in the traditional way. Then I asked her to interview her friends, which in turn elicited responses from 13 different women in their mid- to late- 50’s. The questions that my mother and I used were:

  1. How do you address your husband’s siblings?
  2. (In case you had known them before you were married) Were there any changes in the ways you addressed them after you were married?
  3. How do you feel about the terms that you use?

Interestingly, I found more variance in the address term practices than I had expected. Only 3 out of 13 respondents strictly followed the prescriptive rules. In the rest of the cases, they reported a range of alternative practices including:

  • Using the terms that your own children would address them (e.g. Samchon “Uncle”, Komo “Auntie” [-H])
  • Using the terms that your husband would address them along with the honorific suffix -nim (e.g. Nwu-nim “Older sister” [+H])
  • Addressing them in relation to their own child’s name (e.g. Eunsun-emma “Eunsun’s mom”, Kyengmin-appa “Kyengmin’s dad” [-H])
  • Using different terms when your parents-in-law are around and when they are not

Struck by the variance in the practices, I inquired the factors for choosing the terms that they use. Some of the influential factors I have found are:

  • Socialization experiences 
    • In their own family
    • In husband’s family
  • Their perception of the husband’s parents’ conservativeness
  • Their interpersonal distance or age difference with their husband’s siblings
  • The husband’s siblings’ preference / Whether they have children
  • Their own preference
    • The degree to which they feel ‘comfortable’ using those terms
    • The association of knowing the ‘correct’ terms with well-educatedness

Except for the one respondent who reported that she had never questioned using the traditional address terms, all the other respondents reported that they had gone through some adjusting processes when they got married and as their relationship with their husband’s siblings evolved as they had children. Two salient strategies emerged in the processes: a) negotiation, where they talked with their husband’s siblings and reached agreement on which term both sides feel comfortable using; b) silence, where they chose to opt out of using address terms for their husband’s siblings altogether due to their uneasiness with the terms.

Address terms can be a very sensitive issue since it would directly affect how you verbally communicate with the person in face-to-face interaction. This was well-supported by the online data that I encountered and the conversations that I had with my interviewees. Although revising the prescriptive norms regarding the address terms may not be the right remedy for this issue as some commentators online have pointed out, it is evident that major changes have been occurring at the micro-level practices of people’s use of those terms.

Now I am curious to know our readers’ reaction to this issue of family address terms. To what extent do you think there is a value or meaning to the prescriptive rules? How would you want to address your in-law family members? What if there is a conflict in the ways you and your husband or in-law family members think of the terms? How would you go about to address the conflict through conversations? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!




Lee, E. (2018, Sep 23). “남편 동생은 도련님ㆍ아가씨인데, 내 동생은 처남ㆍ처제?” (“My husband’s younger siblings are called Tolyennim and Akassi, and my younger siblings are called chenam and checay?”). JoongAng Ilbo. Retrieved from

Lee, E. (2019, Jan 23). 도련님 대신 ‘OO씨’…성별 비대칭 호칭 바뀐다(‘XX-ssi’ instead of Tolyennim … Gender-Asymmetric Address Terms Change). JoongAng Ilbo. Retrieved from

Lee, P. & Kim, T. (2018). Aspects and Problems in the Contemporary Use of
Address Terms and Reference Terms within a Family”. The Sociolinguistic Journal of Korea, 26(1). 277-309

“LOL”: On perceptions of language evolution in the age of the internet

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sarah Horwitz, a fourth year student majoring in Linguistics at The University of Pennsylvania.

Screenshot 2019-12-19 11.08.35.png

I’ll begin honestly: I have never considered myself to be among the pioneering forces of youth culture. However, I was surprised to notice at the end of last summer that I sounded like I could be. By which I mean, I realized that I had started saying LOL in spoken conversations. Soon after, I made some additional observations: notably, that when I said LOL, I didn’t always pronounce it the same way (cf. “L-O-L” [ɛl.o.ɛl] versus “lull” [lʌl] or “lole” [lɒl]); and that the variance between these pronunciations didn’t feel trivial. However, I wasn’t sure what to make of this information.

Fast forward to early September, when I was struck by a moment of linguistic wonderment (Rymes 2019): in the middle of a spoken conversation, the friend I was talking with “LOL-ed”. Just like I do! As it turned out, my friend – also young and female – uses LOL in her spoken language, and she also pronounces her LOLs variably. This moment of wonder sparked many new questions – for instance, could we, as young, female speakers, be innovators in an ongoing linguistic change? – yet I still lacked any nuanced answers.

Several weeks later, my spoken LOL use cropped up again, this time in a moment of linguistic arrest (Rymes 2019). After hearing me say LOL out loud, both my mom and my brother called me out, asking: Why don’t you just actually laugh? In the moment, I struggled to explain my behavior. However, I didn’t feel like I was using LOL as a replacement for laughter, and I was also hesitant to label any sort of communicative behavior – especially my own! – as “wrong”.

These personal experiences culminated in my endeavor to better understand what it means when people say LOL in spoken, offline[1] language. In what follows, I explain how I used methods of citizen sociolinguistic inquiry – defined by Rymes (2019) as “pay[ing] attention to how [everyday] people talk about language,” (9) – to probe the meanings of “spoken LOL”. I should mention that my experiences with sociolinguistic research heavily shaped my analytical approach. However, what follows is not sociolinguistic research. Though perhaps, in the spirit of Svendsen (2018), my methods might contribute to evolving discussions of “how (socio) linguistics can contribute to the general field of citizen science,” (140).

What does it mean when someone uses LOL in spoken language?

This is the question at the core of my research. As a nascent “LOL-er”, I’ll admit to being selfishly interested in better understanding my own language use. Yet for less trivial reasons, the sociolinguist in me wondered if better understanding the meaning of “spoken LOL” could enrich our understandings of the people actively involved in, or witness to, processes of linguistic change. Some other questions I wondered about include:

  • Who actively participates in processes of language change?
  • Who controls these processes?
  • How do people respond to these processes while they’re happening?

And, crucially:

  • How do people understand their own (and others’) participation in the process of language change?

In what follows, I outline my most essential and interesting discoveries. While admittedly lengthy, these discoveries are by no means exhaustive, and I am sure they will continue evolving over time. Thus, in the true spirit of citizen sociolinguistic inquiry, I welcome any feedback and further discoveries in the comments section!

No source left behind (lol)

“Citizen sociolinguistics”, and citizen science more generally, seeks to gain knowledge by asking and/or involving “non-experts” – generally, people without conferred social or academic status on a subject matter – in the research process (Rymes 2019; Svendsen 2018). Thus, to capture the widest range of existing knowledge on spoken LOL, I actively sought out sources with varying levels of “mainstream” (institutional) prestige. I arrange this diversity of expertise along what I call a “continuum of standard”. Here are the sources I consulted, arranged on the continuum:


“Less” standard:

  • Urban Dictionary
  • Wikipedia
  • Stan Carey’s personal blog
  • Quora
  • Google survey I administered to people in my academic and personal networks

“Sorta” standard:

  • Grammarly
  • YouTube
  • Digg
  • Wired

“More” standard:

  • Slate Magazine
  • Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
  • The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
  • National Public Radio (NPR)
  • Linguists (Dr. John McWhorter and Gretchen McCulloch)


I found widespread evidence across nearly every source I consulted that LOL is now a feature of many English speakers’ spoken language. I also found fairly consistent attestations of the nuanced social meanings and functions of LOL, both online and offline. However, among the people and sources I consulted, I discovered an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards this evolved linguistic reality. Why, if even the most “standardizing” of cultural touchstones like the OED, attest the presence of LOL in spoken language, do people still seem to believe that this way of using language is “bad”? I cannot definitively explain this trend, despite all of my research. However, by providing nuanced information about spoken LOL, I hope to equip you, dear reader, with an understanding of how departures from linguistic norms can be ingenious, instead of just injurious.

Saying LOL out loud is officially a thing

There is overwhelming attestation across the sources on my “continuum of standard” that LOL is a feature of many English speakers’ spoken language. It is worth contextualizing the general emergence of LOL before delving further into its significance when said out loud. According to the BBC, the first online use of LOL was by “computer geeks” at the end of the 1980s (1). Over the next thirty years, use of LOL in internet-mediated contexts gradually expanded, and had exploded in popularity – and among younger demographics – by the early 2000s. According to an article on Wired, LOL has existed beyond the confines of cyberspace since approximately 2011 (1). However, the article goes on to list the first verbal citing of LOL as occurring before 2011, as part of dialogue between two characters in the British novel Freshers(by Kevin Sampson; published 2003):

Screen Shot 2019-12-16 at 13.33.27

Source: Wired, “People Officially Say ‘LOL’ Out Loud” (2011)

Evidently, the presence of LOL in written dialogue is different from the presence of LOL in myriad spoken conversations that occur around the English-speaking world (cf. You’re Skitting Me 2014; Morgan 2011; Carey 2013; McWhorter 2013; McCulloch 2019). However, it is worth highlighting that the presence of LOL in written dialogue suggests a cultural shift, in which the use of LOL in a spoken conversation becomes normalized. It is impossible to say whether this lone instance of normalized spoken LOL precipitated the frequent presence of spoken LOL that we currently see. Regardless, use of LOL has transitioned from written to spoken conversations since 2011. A Quora forum (from around 2016), based on the question “When people say ‘lol’, do they say ‘l’ ‘o’ ‘l’ individually or together as ‘lol’?”, further attests the progression of LOL use offline. Notably, the question of the forum is not whether people say LOL offline, but how LOL is pronounced when it is said aloud. In other words: the question is premised on what appears to be a new linguistic reality: LOL is not limited to online spaces. Interestingly, the two top answers to this original query have been viewed 1.4 thousand and 342 times respectively since 2016 (at the time of writing, December 2019). We therefore have indications that by 2016, many people were not only aware of LOL’s offline presence, but also cognizant that LOL could be pronounced in different ways.

That the existence of “spoken LOL” is now a given is echoed by the sampling of citizens I polled in a brief online survey (2019). Of 31 respondents, 29 (93.5%) are aware of spoken LOL:

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.23.59

We can by no means generalize based on the results of this small and unrepresentative sample. However, it is worth noting that among this sample (roughly gender-balanced, but skewed young), the majority of respondents had heard LOL used in spoken language.

Beyond asking questions related to LOL on my survey, I also asked my respondents to self-report where they grew up. Curious to see if geographic location had any influence on a respondent’s familiarity with LOL, I used Labov et al.’s (2006) Atlas of North American English (ANAE) to code each respondent’s “geography of origin” by the ANAE category it fell into. The ANAE provides comprehensive evidence of the dialect diversity that exists in North America; each of its dialect regions, shown in the map below, are arguably distinct. Once coded, I plotted each of my positive respondents (respondents who had heard LOL used out loud; N=29) in their dialect region of the ANAE dialect map:

Figure 2.

Screen Shot 2019-12-15 at 17.10.06

Once again, it would be unwise to generalize from the patterns suggested by this graphic. Yet it is still interesting to note that recognition of “spoken LOL” does not seem limited to particular regions, within our small sample of geographically diverse speakers. It’s also worth noting that this kind of analytical approach exemplifies a blending of traditional sociolinguistic methodology with emerging citizen sociolinguistic methods, and could possibly be successfully adopted with larger and more balanced data sets.

Use and comprehension of LOL is SYSTEMATIC & CONSISTENT

Moving beyond evidence of LOL’s recognizable presence in spoken English, we turn towards documentation on what LOL means. Across the same “continuum of standard” sources, we find even more robust evidence supporting the notion of LOL as a communicative device with nuanced meanings. Interestingly, it appears that the meanings of LOL online and offline are slightly different. However, in both contexts LOL seems to function to concisely convey extralinguistic information.

Dr. John McWhorter gives LOL the linguistic classification of a “pragmatic particle” (2013), or a word that adds helpful context to a communicative interaction. McWhorter (2013) argues that LOL is a pragmatic particle that communicates empathy. He expands on this discursive function to argue that LOL is also unique for giving written speech, which has traditionally sounded relatively formal, a way to sound more casual. Linguist Gretchen McCulloch (2019) expands on this idea of LOL “informalizing” written speech, and also draws on the work of a third linguist, Michelle McSweeney, to document the “semantic shift” undergone by LOL from its origins in the “Old Internet” to its current online use. McCulloch explains how in the early days of “Old Internet People” (think our “1980s computer geeks” from the previous section), LOL emerged as shorthand that meant “laugh(ing) out loud”. However, LOL has since evolved into a “social lubricant” (2019:125) that softens what is sometimes interpreted as curt, cold online communication. McCulloch explains how LOL seems to be used for emotionally motivated communication, including to flirt, to repair a relationship, and to hint at subtext (2019:105; NPR 2019). It seems that regardless of its specific emotional appeal, the presence of LOL in a message implies that there is at least a second layer of meaning in the communication.

Beyond these layers of meaning, McCulloch also documents certain “syntactic constraints”[2] that appear to condition how LOL is used in online contexts. For example, she describes how LOL tends to be used only once per utterance. The presence of such “syntactic constraints” is expanded by Grammarly, a website that markets itself as a tool for proper and effective writing. According to Grammarly, LOL can be used online as an interjection and as a verb (Ticok, 2). This suggests it would be appropriate to say “why’d you lol so hard” [where “lol” is a verb], but inappropriate to say “wow you’re such an lol” [where “lol” is a noun]. It is likely these uses might have made intuitive sense to you as you read them; if so, that would seem to provide additional “citizen” support for the existence of structural constraints on how LOL is used!

Ultimately, the fact that LOL seems to convey nuanced semantic information, plus has basic “syntactic constraints”, lends intriguing and critical academic credibility to the form and function of LOL. Unfortunately, none of these linguistic analyses approach LOL in the offline contexts that I am most interested in. Additional online sources (cf. Anderson 2011, Morgan 2011, Carey 2013, Manjoo 2013, McWhorter 2013, McCulloch 2019)[3] also seemed to relegate their copious depictions of LOL’s communicative nuances to “online LOL”. I can only speculate about what this lack of information might suggest. Perhaps the primary folks having discussions of LOL’s meaning are unaware of the differences between LOL’s written and spoken meanings; perhaps those who do say LOL aloud are intuitively connected to its nuanced meanings, and thus have no need to discuss them; or perhaps something entirely different is going on. As I do not know more definitively, I can only draw from the responses of my survey to probe the nuanced meanings of spoken LOL. And according to my survey responses, it appears that the “semantic shift” of LOL described by McCulloch and McWhorter might have carried over into spoken language!

I asked my survey respondents to write-in what they thought LOL means when said aloud. Resultantly, I received a range of responses. However, there were some consistent trends in what people said, and in poring over the data, I identified four main categories of meaning:

(1) Sarcasm/irony (sarc):

  • Saying LOL can communicate irony or sarcasm, or that something is unfortunate or “MEME funny”

(2) Funny, but not enough to laugh (almost.ha):

  • Saying LOL can mean you’re indicating an appreciation of humoristic intent, contained laughter, or acknowledging a joke; critically, saying LOL is not an intended replacement for real laughter

(3) Awkward (awk):

  • Saying LOL in response to what someone else says can indicate that you found something funny when it was not actually intended to be so; it can convey a pity laugh or sense of awkwardness; or it can convey a response like “omg”, “ha!”, or “imagine that!”

(4) Literal LOL (LOL):

  • A small number of respondents said that LOL is an acronym meaning “laugh out loud”, and when spoken means “that’s funny”; it can also mean earnest/unironic laughter

(5) Other (other):

  • The remaining responses were either uncertain (cf. “I don’t know”) or off-topic (cf. “It means we are applying a phrase normally deployed digitally to different setting and context”)

I coded each of my responses into the category it best fit, and then graphed my four primary meanings (plus “other”) by the number of respondents who said them. The resultant graph, shown below, suggests some interesting preliminary patterns:

Figure 3.


Two striking patterns emerge from this graph: first, among our small and unrepresentative sample, the “funny but not enough to laugh” (almost.ha) and “sarcasm/irony” (sarc) meanings occurred among the highest number of respondents (N=9 and N=11, respectively). Secondly, when the “other” category is excluded, we see that the “funny but not enough to laugh” and “sarcasm/irony” meanings occurred a noticeably higher number of times than the “awkward” and “literal LOL” meanings did (N=2 and N=3, respectively). These trends seem to tentatively indicate that spoken LOL conveys meanings of irony or sarcasm, adjacent to actual laughter, that are above the level of consciousness of many speakers (in other words, speakers are generally aware of these meanings). It would be interesting to substantiate these findings with more data, which might also let us probe interactions among speaker gender, age, and these semantic categories.

Overall, while these patterns seem interesting, there is again no guarantee that they are accurate, nor do we have any way of knowing how they might generalize to a larger and more balanced sample of speakers. However, this preliminary visual analysis suggests that there might exist a consensus among speakers of what spoken LOL means. Further, in the context of claims of a “semantic shift” undergone by LOL (McCulloch 2019:106), it is interesting to observe that only a small number of participants identified spoken LOL as meaning literal laughter. Again, we cannot guarantee that these patterns are reliable; yet if they are, the nuanced meanings of spoken LOL that depart from literal laughter seem to align with the nuanced meanings of written LOL that depart from literal laughter.

Beware of “LOL Syndrome”!

Despite such seemingly widespread and recognized presence, spoken LOL – along with written LOL – is frequently skewered by citizen and expert speakers. Critics of spoken LOL decry the feature as being confusing and evincing poor grammar (cf. Wikipedia). A finer-grained sampling of representative attitudes is provided below:

  • Wired, “People Officially Say ‘LOL’ Out Loud” (2011):
    • The author explains that, despite his efforts to the contrary, “I’ve personally felt LOL threaten to burst forth on occasion; it may have once even escaped my lips,” (Anderson 2)
  • Slate, “LOL: Write it. Text it. But never, ever say it.” (2013):
    • After presenting complex arguments for the fairly nuanced semantics of “online LOL”, the author writes: “I’m still leery of using the word lol in speech, though. That’s because when you’re talking to someone rather than typing, you have many better ways of expressing emotion—tone of voice, body language, the entirety of the language. When you say lol—whether you pronounce it EL-OH-EL or LAWL—it feels unnatural, like you’re calling attention to texting when you should be talking,” (Manjoo 2)
  • The BBC, “Why did LOL infiltrate the language?” (2011):
    • Cites “purists” and “anti-lollers” who are concerned about spoken LOL’s contribution to the “bastardization” of English (Morgan 1)
  • YouTube, “Those People Who Say ‘LOL’ | You’re Skitting Me S2” (2014):
    • Saying LOL aloud is labeled “LOL syndrome”, something that is shown to be uncontrollable and contagious, and can be “contracted”; those in the skit who say LOL aloud are described as “irresponsible”, and become socially shunned by peers
  • Stan Carey’s WordPress blog, “Sentence first: An Irishman’s blog about the English language” (original post from 2013):
    • Note the first commenter’s stated surprise at the prevalence of LOL in the speech of university students; yet in contrast to the negativity of the previous comments, the second commenter here normalizes the use of “spoken LOL”, to positive effect:Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.14

I’ve underlined the most explicitly negative elements of the titles and quotes in the above list. These elements characterize spoken LOL with a language of disease (“infiltrate”, “syndrome”, “contract”) and a language of abnormality (“leery”, “escape”, “burst forth”, “unnatural”), beyond generally negative phrasing like “never” and “when you should be [doing something else]”. These metaphorical descriptions paint a fairly consistent picture of LOL as something unwanted and damaging. Even though the last comment, from Stan Carey’s blog, frames spoken LOL in a more positive light, it is striking that this is the only representative comment to do so. It is also intriguing to consider these overwhelmingly negative attitudes in the context of the aforementioned nuanced descriptions of LOL’s meaning and structure. While I cannot explain this disconnect between the meaning and structure of LOL, and attitudes about its use, it seems illogical to simultaneously legitimize the meaning and structure of a linguistic feature, but delegitimize its use.

I found a similar disconnect to exist in my survey responses. Again, of 31 citizen respondents, 93.5% (29/31) had reported hearing LOL said aloud. Among the same group of respondents, 64.5% (20/31) – though smaller, still a majority – reported themselves as being people who would say LOL in their offline communications:

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.23

Yet, when asked to evaluate how “good” or “bad” it is when people say LOL aloud, these same peoples’ responses skewed neutral to negative:

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.30

I should note that I intentionally left “good” and “bad” undefined in the survey, in order to mitigate the potential influence of my definitions on respondents’ answers. Yet because these terms are undefined, I cannot comment on how respondents may have interpreted them. Nevertheless, it is striking that within a population of respondents wherein the majority have both heard spoken LOL and would say LOL in their own spoken language, only 4 of 31 (12.9%) respondents ranked “spoken LOL” as “good”. The majority of respondents, 18/31 (58.1%) ranked this behavior as neutral, while the middle number of respondents ranked “spoken LOL” as “bad”. This is a surprising trend! Again, because this survey sample is small and unrepresentative, I can only speculate about why spoken LOL seems to be framed in such a negative way. It is possible that over time, as saying LOL is seen as more of a “norm” and less of a “deviant” behavior, more people will evaluate its usage more positively. In the meantime, attitudes surrounding spoken LOL seem like a rich area for deeper research.

Time to meet the family (lolz)

Better understanding attitudes and usage of spoken LOL may also result from investigating some of LOL’s cousins, which include LMAO (“laughing my a** off”), ROFL (“rolling on the floor laughing”), and LOLZ (the plural of “LOL”; “many LOLs”). (For a more complete list of variants, please consult the following sites: BBC and Wikipedia). I don’t have the bandwidth to fully investigate variations of spoken LOL in this one post. However, according to two peers, LMAO does figure certain peoples’ spoken English repertoires – although saying LMAO aloud tends to be seen as “more cringey” than saying LOL (personal communication). These “citizen perspectives” pan out with some subsequent online research. According to the site “HiNative” (2018), which is geared towards helping non-native speakers of English, it becomes clear that LMAO is used in spoken language:

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.37

The featured response, by including “…often pronounced as just ‘lmao’ if used in speaking” (orange underline), implies that LMAO is a feature of the spoken language of native English speakers. Further, the casual way in which spoken LMAO is alluded to may suggest that the behavior itself is not particularly noteworthy. I’m honestly uncertain what “just ‘lmao’” means in terms of pronunciation, but according to my two Gen-Z references, LMAO is said aloud in the following way: “luh-mOW” [lə.mæ̓w]. The relative recency of this thread (2018), compared with the featured LOL threads (2013-2017), may suggest that “spoken LMAO” emerged after “spoken LOL”. Ultimately, more research is needed to fully understand this trend!

A second “LOL-spinoff” worth mentioning here has to do with the popular 2007 category of memes, “lolcat”. The first recorded use of “lolcat” was on 4chan in 2006, and the watershed moment for “lolcat” came in 2007 with the “I Can Haz Cheezburger?” meme (McCulloch 2019:243). “Lolcat” officially entered the online version of the OED in 2014 (Wikipedia). Beyond spawning countless “lolcat” memes, and styles of memes, “lolcat” also spawned an internet language called “lolspeak”. This language is intentionally “improper”, and was designed to be a self-referential spoof of “improper internet language”. However, despite its intentional goofiness, there are consistent syntactic patterns to “lolcat” memes and their language, including:

  • “Im in ur [noun], [verb]-ing ur [related noun].”
  • “[Adjective] cat is [adjective/noun].”

Further, “lolspeak” is actually used by people! Most famously, “lolspeak” was used to create a translation of the Bible, the beginning of which reads as follows:

Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.

Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz.

At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz.

An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nethin.

An Ceiling Cat sayed light Day An dark no Day. It were FURST!!!

(excerpt taken from Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet, pp. 243-44)

Nearly every line of this excerpted translation is a reference to some sort of online meme (McCulloch 2019:244). Such a feat of translation is formidable and deserves much lengthier attention than I can provide in this post. However, I still wanted to mention it, because certain core features of “lolcats” and “lolspeak” seem to parallel features of “spoken LOL”:

(1) Both communicate nuanced layers of meaning, sometimes in self-referential ways;

(2) Both are at least a little bit systematic in nature; and

(3) Both have the tendency to draw criticism or negative evaluation from certain other speakers (cf. Morgan 2011, Manjoo 2013, You’re Skitting Me 2014, Wikipedia [ROFLCon])

In recent years, “lolcats” has appeared to lose steam, and the meme is currently less of a cultural vanguard than it once was (Wikipedia [ROFLCon]). Yet the parallels between “lolcats” during their heyday and certain current trends with LOL seem to indicate a certain consistency to how aspects of internet culture and language are transforming oral culture and communication.

Mais attendez, ceci n’appartient pas uniquement à l’anglais ! (ptdrrr)[4]

To recap everything that our investigation has uncovered so far, it appears that:

  1. LOL does exist beyond electronic communication
  2. What LOL means when used in spoken language does not seem random or accidental;
  3. Rather, speakers seem aware that their language is changing, and can articulate both these changes and their systematic meanings pretty well
  4. Yet the discourse around spoken LOL is full of threatening language
  5. Perhaps people have such overwhelmingly negative attitudes towards spoken LOL because they are afraid of the change, or are afraid of being complicit in what may amount to a degradation of language?
  6. At the moment, we cannot say for sure!

This has been a fascinating journey for me, and I appreciate that you’ve successfully read this far! 😉 Yet I would be remiss if I kept my discussion anglo-centric. Indeed, LOL is not the only online laughter, or laughter-adjacent, convention that exists. The following schematic shows various ways of laughing online, for the top ten countries in the world (by internet users):

Screenshot 2019-12-19 10.45.48

Source: Digg, “I Say LOL, You Say Ek1: How People Around The World Laugh Online” (2018)

I leave as an open question whether these other online forms of laughter are also used in spoken speech. Well, I suppose I should say slightly open; in speaking with a native French speaker, I understand that the French constructions “mort de rire” (“dying of laughter”) and “pété de rire” (literally, “broken of laughter”; stronger than mort de rire) are frequently used out loud, perhaps even more so than their English LOL counterparts (personal communication).

On that note of further discovery, I hope that this post sparks interesting conversations, and eagerly anticipate hearing your comments and feedback 🙂

And now, let the conversations continue – IRL!


References (and further reading, lol 😉

Anderson, N. (2011, March 26). People Officially Say ‘LOL’ Out Loud. Wired. Retrieved from

Carey, S. (2013, March 5). The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL”. Retrieved from   

Dimock, M. (2019, January 17). Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins. Pew Research Center. Retrieved December 14, 2019, from     generation-z-begins/.

Ho, P-C. (2019, October 4). I Say LOL, You Say Ek1: How People Around The World Laugh     Online. Digg. Retrieved from          online

Labov, W., Ash, S., & Boberg, C. (2006). Chapter 11: The dialects of North American English.   In The atlas of North American English: Phonetics, phonology, and sound change: a multimedia reference tool (116-149). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Accessed online at   

lol. (2017, April 25 [top definition]). Retrieved December 10, 2019 from Urban Dictionary:

LOL. (n.d.) Retrieved December 10, 2019 from the LOL Wikipedia page:

Lolcat. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2019 from the Lolcat Wikipedia page:

LOLCats – Funny cat pictures. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Manjoo, F. (2013, May 2). LOL: Write it. Text it. But never, ever say it. Slate Magazine. Retrieved from               ver_ev er_say_it.html

McCulloch, G. (Interviewee), Yu, M. & Kopp, E. (Producers/Editors), Jarenwattananon, P. &      Novey, B. (Web adapters). (2019, July 31). Our Language Is Evolving, ‘Because        Internet’ [All Things Considered Author Interview]. Retrieved from NPR,   

McCulloch, G. (2019). Chapter 3: Internet People. In Because Internet (63-108). New York, NY:            Riverhead Books.

McCulloch, G. (2019). Chapter 4: Typographical Tone of Voice. In Because Internet (109-154). New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

McCulloch, G. (2019). Chapter 7: Memes and Internet Culture. In Because Internet (237-264).    New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

McWhorter, J. (Speaker). (2013). Txting is killing language/ JK!!! [TED Talk]. TED | Ideas         worth spreading. TED Talk retrieved from    n#t-804123

Morgan, J. (2011, April 8). Why did LOL infiltrate the language? BBC News Magazine.   Retrieved from

Palomasribeiro [username]. (2018, January 23). What does lmao mean? Question posted to          HiNative,

Pan, J. (2016, May 3). When people say “lol”, do they say ‘l’ ‘o’ ‘l’ individually or together as    “lol”? Question posted to Quora,        say-l-o-l-individually-or-together-as-lol

ROFLCon [archived website]. (2007 October 31 – 2014 September 21). Retrieved from   

ROFLCon. (n.d.). Retrieved December 14, 2019 from the ROFLCon Wikipedia page:

Rymes, B. (2019). Chapter 1: Citizen’s Arrest. In How We Talk About Language. Cambridge       University Press [expected 2020, October 1]

Rymes, B. (2019). Chapter 2: Wonderment, The spark that starts talk about language. In How We  Talk About Language. Cambridge University Press [expected 2020, October 1]

Rymes, B. (2019). Chapter 4: Fomenting Wonderment and Critique: Feedback Loops. In How We Talk About Language. Cambridge University Press [expected 2020, October 1]

Svendsen, B.A. (2018). The dynamics of citizen sociolinguistics. Journal of Sociolinguistics,       22(2), 137-160.

Ticak, M. (n.d.) What Does Lol Mean? [web log comment]. Retrieved from Grammarly,

You’re Skitting Me. (2014, April 12). Those People Who Say “LOL” | You’re Skitting Me S2       [Video File]. Retrieved from

[1] Note: I mean “offline” in the sense of “not on the internet”, not in any sense of semantic/syntactic processing. The same holds for “online”; when I say “online”, I only mean “on the internet”

[2] In quotation marks because I do not mean “syntactic constraints” in their formal (theoretical) linguistic sense

[3] Though I recognize that there are many online sites and forums I may have missed!

[4] But wait, all this doesn’t belong uniquely to English! (LOLLL)