How ‘LOL’ Became a Punctuation Mark

Far from its “laughing out loud” origins, the term now suggests irony and ambivalence—and also the mutability of language.

Eric Heunthep / Flickr

This week, Kim Kardashian West did something she has done many, many times before: She posted a picture of herself on Instagram. This particular image, however, got a little more attention than her typical selfie. That’s probably because it went like this:

When you're like I have nothing to wear LOL

A photo posted by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on

So, yes. (Forgive me, Mr. Emerson.) But stop looking at the picture. Look, instead, at the caption Kim appended to her Insta: When you’re like I have nothing to wear LOL. Look, in particular, at that dangling “LOL.” Kim is doing a lot of things in the photo—snapping a selfie, gazing at her reflected image with a mixture of curiosity and wonderment, being naked—but laughing is definitely not one of them.

And, you know, of course it isn’t. Kim is a person who takes her body very seriously, not just in the way most of us do, but also in a way that acknowledges its status as a Boorstinian media event and a means of capitalistic production. Kim’s “LOL” offers, instead of laughter, an ironic aaaaaand scene to the humblebrag she’s typed into her Instagram caption field. There is pretty much nobody in the world who is less likely to find herself with “nothing to wear” than Kim Kardashian West; her LOL acknowledges that. Her LOL suggests the many threads of irony required to weave an outfit of black-rectangled censors. Her LOL is a wink, rendered as an acronym. Her LOL functions as, essentially, a punctuation mark.

It’s been some time now since “LOL,” as deployed by mortals not named Kim Kardashian West, has meant by default what it originally did: “laughing out loud.” (Online chats I’ve had with colleagues who are sitting within earshot confirm that their typed-out “LOL”s are very rarely evidence of the real thing; since that suggests the failing either of “LOL” or of me, full disclosure, I have kind of a vested interest in LOL’s fundamental unfunniness.) And, indeed: As early as 2001, the linguist David Crystal—the same man who is now trying to bring more LOLs to Shakespearewas wondering, “How many people are actually ‘laughing out loud’ when they send LOL?” The linguist Gretchen McCulloch wrote, in 2013, “I’d argue that LOL (commonly without caps) barely indicates an internal, silent chuckle, never mind an uproarious, audible guffaw.”

It’s true. But it’s not just that LOL, the stuff of the Vintage Internet, has gone soft in its old age, suggesting hilarity that is politely introverted rather than raucously audible. It’s more that LOL, at this point, has lost most of its sense of humor. While the term has certainly stopped meaning, literally, “laughing out loud,” it has also ceased to indicate—to a large extent if not the full one—“laughter” of any kind at all. Last May, Facebook analyzed the ways people “e-laugh” (“haha,” “hehe,” the laughter emoji) on its platform. The analysis found that of the 15 percent of Facebook users who included some form of digital laughter in their posts during the week Facebook studied, the most common of these was “haha” (51.4 percent of laughter), followed by laughing emoji (33.7 percent) and “hehe” (13.1). As for “LOL”? It accounted for only 1.9 percent of Facebook’s digital chuckles.

And yet! LOL is still so common! There it remains, peppering WhatsApp chats and Slack conversations and Twitter posts and Facebook updates and the Instagram captions of Kim Kardashian West. There it is, as palindromic and seemingly popular as ever. There it is, still suggestive of “hahas” and “hehes” and Face With Tears of Joy. There it is, ready to be deployed when you’re not quiiiiiite sure whether that Tinder guy you’ve been texting with was joking about Trump or (oh nooooo) very much not. There it is, ready and willing—like the tilde and the ALL-CAPS and the ironic emoji—to destabilize language, productively. There it is, doing its part to cloak digital communications in a warm blanket of interpersonal ambiguity.

So it’s not that LOL, strictly speaking, has gone the way of “ROFL” and “fleek” and “bae”—it’s not that LOL, as The Awl bluntly declared in writing about the Facebook study last year, has died. On the contrary: It is still vital. It is still common. It has simply, like so many other pieces of Internet slang, evolved to encompass more than its original meaning. As the linguist John McWhorter summed it up in 2013: “LOL isn’t funny anymore.”

McWhorter gave, in his essay on the matter, the example of Jocelyn and Annabelle, two friends who are texting with each other. “Jocelyn texts ‘where have you been?’” McWhorter wrote, “and Annabelle texts back ‘LOL at the library studying for two hours.’ How funny is that, really?” (Not very.) Instead, McWhorter argued, the “LOL” in the women’s exchange is standing in as, effectively, a marker for empathy. It is replacing the things that can be achieved in an in-person conversation—the nodding of the head, the contact of the eyes, the tiny gestures that together lend the “L” to the “IRL”—with a three-letter symbol. “LOL,” McWhorter put it, “no longer ‘means’ anything. Rather, it ‘does something’—conveying an attitude—just as the ending ‘ed’ doesn’t ‘mean’ anything but conveys past tense. LOL is, of all things, grammar.”

So back to—the place where all things will probably go, in the end—Kim Kardashian West. Her “LOL,” on the one hand, is functioning in just the way McWhorter predicted: It is acting as a punctuation mark. It is transcending verbal meaning, and also reveling in it. It is expressing the kind of meta-emotion that is very easy to make clear in in-person conversations and very difficult to make clear in other kinds.

Kim’s LOL, however, differs from its predecessors in a significant way. The LOL she has deployed in her Instagram caption is not about empathy, really; that would defeat the purpose of her broadcast-driven, demi-goddessian relationship with her fans and her followers. Instead, her LOL suggests a kind of ironic ambivalence: It’s a winking acknowledgement that what she is saying about herself is, indeed, a joke. Not in the “this will make you laugh” sense, but in the deeper, more shadowed, more ironic sense. Here is a naked Kim Kardashian, talking about having no clothes. That is not “haha” funny. It is LOL funny.

Which is also to say that Kim Kardashian West—with her naked selfie and her naked self—have done what centuries’ worth of writers have failed to do: create punctuation that suggests, in its winking way, sarcasm. The 19th-century poet Alcanter de Brahm proposed a point d’ironie—a piece of punctuation that resembled a backwards question mark. It failed to catch on. The 20th-century novelist Hervé Bazin tried to revive Brahm’s suggestion—again, to no effect. Ambrose Bierce offered the “snigger point” (a horizontal parenthesis, or “”) to punctuate “every jocular or ironical sentence.” Nabokov suggested “a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.” A father-and-son team in Michigan, in 2008, filed a patent for the “SarcMark”—“the official, easy-to-use punctuation mark to emphasize a sarcastic phrase, sentence, or message.” You can guess how that went [insert SarcMark here].

But then, after all those efforts from the masters of language writ large, comes … Kim Kardashian. A reality star armed with nothing but a penchant for selfies, a massive Instagram following, and a sentence—“When you’re like I have nothing to wear”—that contains no punctuation but “LOL.” Of course, though, it’s not just Kim who has achieved this. Kim’s LOL comes on the heels of every other LOL that has, on platforms large and small, questioned and sarcasmed and #sorrynotsorry-ed and otherwise made words richer and fuller with its presence.

Kim’s LOL is ironic, to be sure; it whiffs, slightly, of lolnothingmatters, that most nihilistic of post-modern catchphrases. But her LOL is also, in its way, optimistic, and telling of the times: The LOL in when you’re like I have nothing to wear LOL occupies the spot where, in more formal English, a period would be. And it swaps that ancient mark’s suggestion of finality with one of suggestive invitation. Kim’s “when you’re like” adopts the framework of the meme, communal and conversational and vaguely conspiratorial; her “LOL” seals the deal. Kim, a human who is also a piece of media, is welcoming you to reply to her. She is in fact daring you to reply to her. Her “LOL” replaces the logic of the period with the logic of the ellipsis. Her “LOL” is, much more than her photo ... seductive. It suggests that Kim’s caption and her picture and her self are similar, in their way, to language: mysterious, compelling, and never, thank goodness, quite finished.