The Banality of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's LOL

The most ravenously picked apart teenage digital trail in the history of American terrorism got picked apart again Wednesday afternoon: If you unravel the criminal complaint against Tsarnaev's fellow 19-year-old friend, you'll find an instantly historic LOL. But LOL has lost its historical significance, and everybody needs to calm down with their investigative linguistics.

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The most ravenously picked apart teenage digital trail in the history of American terrorism got picked apart again Wednesday afternoon, as the world met three friends of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev when they were charged by the U.S. government for allegedly helping him hide evidence. If you unravel the main criminal complaint against the classmates from the Justice Department, you'll find an instantly historic LOL, which the government claims Tsarnaev texted to Dias Kadyrbayev, a fellow 19-year-old now in custody. To wit:

Much like a tweet in which Tsarnaev used the teenage lingo of LOL on the day of the Boston Marathon attack, many are already (over)reading into this text message as proof positive of the teenage bombing suspect's sadistic nature. Wired's Spencer Ackerman calls it "surreal." Others call it "eerie." But, really, it's just the type of banal teenage behavior we've seen from the young Tsarnaev brother already. Just because he used the acronym LOL in a text message and on Twitter doesn't make him evil; it makes him a young person who sends text messages and uses Twitter. He is evil because he allegedly helped bomb the Boston Marathon.

Tsarnaev's shorthand has people alarmed because he used it multiple times after the attacks — even if it was to cover his tracks. Because LOL originated as shorthand for "laugh out loud" or "lots of laughs," it looks like he's laughing at death and terror, or at least like he was trying to play it cool in public while he waited in plain site on campus and, apparently, tried to get his friends to ditch his backpack full of fireworks, vaseline, and homework. But since the inception of LOL — some time around 1989, according to the Oxford English Dictionary — the term has since lost its relationship to laughing. And then some.

"'LOL' has definitely been undergoing a semantic shift, with its original humorous connotations becoming toned down or even disappearing entirely," linguist Ben Zimmer told The Atlantic Wire Wednesday afternoon, after the criminal complaint surfaced. The Urban Dictionary definition suggests that LOL currently has just about zero meaning whatsoever:

Now, it is overused to the point where nobody laughs out loud when they say it. In fact, they probably don't even give a shit about what you just wrote. More accurately, the acronym "lol" should be redefined as "Lack of laughter." 

The Urban Dictionary entry also calls LOL a "pointless acronym" that is used as "meaningless sentence-filler." Linguists call this phenomenon semantic bleaching. It happens with a lot of words, the meanings of which dilute or change over time. The slang, in its evolution from AOL Instant Messenger to texting and Twitter and beyond, has certainly been bleached out of usefulness. "'LOL' no longer 'means' anything," wrote linguist John McWhorter in a CNN column published Tuesday. (If anything, that is eerie, surreal timing.)

Not that the meaninglessness of LOL has stopped anyone from searching for hidden meaning in Tsarnaev's LOLs. Now, there are many varied usages of LOL, as linguist Anne Curzan explained in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "LOL is now a way to flag that a message is meant to be funny (similar to jk—'just kidding') or to signal irony," she writes. Buzzfeed also has a post on the various meanings of LOL, what with LOL being part of Buzzfeed's very branding. Most often, as you can see in the Buzzfeed listicle, LOL doesn't mean anything. Curzan continues: "LOL can also be a way to acknowledge that a writer has received a text—a written version of a nod of the head and a smile." McWhorter likens it to grammar more than vocabulary. "Rather, it 'does something' — conveying an attitude — just as the ending '-ed' doesn't 'mean' anything but conveys past tense," he writes.

Trying to do something about an out-of-date coinage that never meant much to begin with, well, that doesn't do anything of value at all.

(Click here for the latest on the Boston friend investigation, here for more on the friends by way of social media, here for a timeline from the criminal complaints, and here for why we should have seen this coming.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.