There Is Only One Thing IMHO Can Mean

And it ain’t “in my honest opinion.”

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Those lovable scoundrels at BuzzFeed, as they are wont to do, have kicked up a new controversy about the breakdown of our shared reality in this time of dislocation and doubt. They have asked people to settle, via internet poll, what the correct meaning of IMHO is.

If you, like me, grew up on the bulletin-board systems (BBSs) and forums that predated the web, you might be scratching your head. IMHO has only one meaning: in my humble opinion. It has always been this way. Though “in my humble opinion” is a phrase people occasionally uttered through history, its current prevalence seems to have originated online. This acronym is a part of the ironic ur-voice of internet communication, honed on Usenet forums about VHS tapes (no, seriously, that’s what the Oxford English Dictionary cites as the first usage) and other nerdy arcana.

Now, along come these clever content creators asking the question: Does IMHO mean “in my humble opinion” OR “in my honest opinion”? And to my horror, roughly one-third of The Atlantic staff thinks the answer is honest, not humble. Sit down, guys, be humble!

And luckily, we have an excellent resource to prove what the meaning of the acronym really is. During the 1990s, a whole bookshelf worth of books (and some magazines) were published as guides to this exotic place called the internet and they almost always included a glossary of slang so you wouldn’t type like a newbie (“one new to the Net”).

The earliest glossary I found was from a 1986 PC Magazine. This one is particularly interesting because it contains now commonplace acronyms alongside lost ones that are just horrifying:

BTW: by the way
CUL: see you later
FWIW: for what it’s worth
GMTA: great minds think alike
HHOK: ha ha only kidding
IMHO: in my humble opinion

This is good evidence that 2018 could be worse. HHOK could be in regular circulation. But praise be, it’s not. And the point is that by 1986, “in my humble opinion” was already part of the glossaried slang of the “Net.”

But it doesn’t stop there of course.

1990’s The Macintosh Way and Inside Compuserve both contain examples of correct IMHO usage, as does 1991’s The First Book of the Mac, 1996’s More Modems for Dummies, 1996’s The Internet Complete Reference by Harley Hahn, and 1999’s Teach Yourself the Internet for Students.

Now, “honest” apologists can take some succor. In many slightly later internet guides, both possible meanings are presented. Take 1993’s Jargon by Robin Williams (not that one). Here, in the spelled-out dictionary, IMHO is defined thusly:

This little acronym, IMHO, stands for in my humble opinion. It’s often used as a typing shortcut in online communication. When it is capitalized, you are shouting. You might also see the term imnsho, which stands for in my not-so-humble opinion.

Now, capitalizing IMHO no longer indicates shouting (although who capitalizes anything anymore amirite?), but humble is the clear first meaning. However, in the listing of acronyms, Jargon does allow for the secondary meaning “in my honest opinion.”

Many books, it turns out, list first humble, then honest, including 1994’s The Net After Dark and Internet Essentials, 1995’s World Wide Web Secrets, 1996’s How to Get Your Dream Job Using the Internet, 1997’s BeginnerNet, and 1998’s Understanding and Using the Internet.

But it should be noted that many books list humble alone, while no book lists honest alone. If I had to guess how these dueling definitions came to be, I’d say that IMHO, which developed as a way to reduce miscommunication through the indication of a lighthearted, ironic tone, became itself a form of miscommunication, as those unfamiliar with the original meaning backed into one, inserting honesty where humility once stood.

IMHO, there is no debate. But it’s the internet, so of course there is a debate.