The Current

In the '80s, this Calgary man invented one of the most common words in internet-speak

Then-Calgary resident Wayne Pearson unintentionally created a word now synonymous with the internet, and linguist Gretchen McCulloch explains how the meaning of LOL varies across generations of users.

Wayne Pearson explains how LOL came into being

Wayne Pearson invented LOL while communicating to a friend on an early internet chat room in Calgary during the '80s. (Submitted by Wayne Pearson)

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You might not have heard of Wayne Pearson, but as a teenager in 1980s Calgary, he invented one of the most recognizable "words" in the internet's lexicon.

Pearson was one day online on a Bulletin Board System, one of the earliest forms of internet chat rooms.

"A friend of mine was on there and … he had said something so funny that it just made me burst out laughing," Pearson told The Current.

Have you guessed where this is going?

"It wasn't just enough to type hahaha into the chat to let him know I thought that was funny," he recalled.

"So, I basically instead of trying to type out really quickly 'That made me laugh out loud,' I just sort of typed LOL."

Pearson's friend asked him what that meant.

"I told him, and it just went from there and got adopted by the others in the chat room, and in that system all around Calgary."

Pearson's neologism went much further than Calgary, and LOL is now common parlance among people who communicate online, through email or text. It's also the source of some confusion, between young people who understand it's an expression of mirth, and some older people who think they're replying to bad news with "Lots of Love."

Gretchen McCulloch's book Because Internet explores the generational differences in online speak. (Yvon Huynh/Riverhead Books)

Internet-speak between generations

Author Gretchen McCulloch has examined those generational differences in her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.

She explained that while Pearson may have created LOL to express his real-world laughter, within about 15 years it had come to mean something else.

"It became — instead of being 'I am literally laughing out loud' — sort of aspirational laughter," said the Montreal-based linguist. 

"I acknowledge this is funny. Maybe I wish I was laughing out loud, or I would be laughing out loud but I'm not actually doing so."

It became — instead of being 'I am literally laughing out loud' — sort of aspirational laughter.- Gretchen McCulloch

In more recent years, younger users have gone a step further, and used it as "a marker of irony or softening." 

"So, if you say to someone, 'I hate you LOL.' That doesn't mean 'I hate you, and I'm laughing about it.' That means 'I'm joking about hating you.'" 

She added that when speaking out loud, older people often say each individual letter — L-O-L — and write it in capitals. By contrast, younger people said it as a word — lol — and write it in lowercase.

But despite the confusion that can arise from differing interpretations of internet-speak, McCulloch insists that "it's OK for different people to talk differently."

"Just because I'm saying: 'Oh younger people tend to do,' that doesn't mean if you're an older person, you have to adopt that," she said.

She hopes her book can encourage people to have those conversations about online language.

"It can be useful to have these meta-conversations about what makes sense to you," she said.

"Is this thing that you're saying — am I interpreting it the way you're intending it?"

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann.