I still remember the moment I realized the complete transformation of our lives brought about by technology. It was December, 2005. I was sitting on a rooftop in Pune, India—visiting my son during his semester abroad—and talking on my (recently acquired) cell phone to my daughter, who was standing on a hill near Kisumu, Kenya, where she was doing volunteer work with AIDS orphans. These locations were necessary for good reception, but still—no wires, no telephone poles, no buried cables—just invisible satellites and cell towers relaying our voices over vast distances, seas, and continents. I sat there dumbfounded, trying to comprehend how this magic was even possible.
These days, we wouldn’t even need to call—we could simply text each other. The first text message, or SMS (short message service), was sent almost 27 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1992, when British engineer Neil Papworth typed “merry Christmas” on a computer and sent it to the (then rare) cell phone of Vodafone director Richard Jarvis. Texting, which allows instant communication from one mobile phone to another—a device nearly everyone carries these days—has become the preferred method of communication for many users, both young and old; today, SMS is the most widely-used data application in the world, with 81 percent of mobile phone subscribers using it. Texting is cheaper than email, because it does not require a wifi internet connection. I have to seek out email, but texts seek me out the minute I look at my phone—like an ongoing conversation carried on between other occupations. According to a 2018 report from Common Sense Media, 8 in 10 teens text daily and 55 percent send or receive multiple texts per hour. The convenience of texting a friend you are meeting at a crowded event, or letting someone know you are running late, or conferring on a decision (should I bring home pizza or Chinese?) is even more magical than my long-ago globe-trotting phone call.
I also remember my first encounter with “text speak,” when in the early 2000s a colleague emailed me that btw, she could help with an upcoming project. “Thanks,” I responded, “but what does btw mean?” I was truly puzzled. With this new form of communication, a whole new language has developed. The advent of texting, combined with the popularity of Twitter—which originally limited posts to 140 characters until it increased the limit to 280 in 2017—has changed our language and created a kind of secret code known only to millennial and Gen Z insiders (i.e., those born from the 1980s through 2010). “Textisms,” or acronyms created to make cell phone texting shorter and faster, have left many of us old fogies struggling to keep up. I am often baffled by such cryptic expressions as LMAO or SMH. As technology miniaturizes everything—from computers to cameras to phones—it is taking language with it. There has been much debate about whether this trend is destroying grammar and degrading language; for example, texters usually eschew punctuation altogether (TMT = too much trouble). But I see textisms as a completely new language phenomenon with its own rules (not many) and one that is, in its own way, original and creative. And these shortcuts come in handy to someone who still writes texts with one finger!
Of course, we’ve used acronyms to save writing time and space for a long time—think of ASAP (as soon as possible), AKA (also known as), DIY (do it yourself), or FYI (for your information). Remember WYSIWYG, one of the first computer-inspired acronyms? It dates from the early days of PCs in schools and businesses (I was there), when what showed on your computer screen—especially when combining text and graphics—was not necessarily what would appear on your print-out, causing major frustration. So WYSIWYG—What You See is What You Get— software was a welcome advancement.
Today’s texting acronyms are more intimate and mundane than DIY or AKA. By now, textisms such as OMG (oh my god) and LOL (laugh out loud) have become commonplace—along, of course, with WTF (no translation needed). But did you know that YOLO means “you only live once” and LMAO means “laughed my a** off?” (a close relative of LMFAO)? Sometimes textisms use only letters and symbols, like U R GR8 or C U later. Besides the time-saving convenience, people seem to enjoy deciphering the code and feeling like they are In with the In Crowd when they use these terms. I realize this is somewhat old news, having been covered in The New Yorker 11/20/16, Newsweek 11/15/17, and even a 2014 short movie called Textisms! But as for me, I still often need to look them up.
FWIW (for what it’s worth), I have not yet jumped on the Twitter bandwagon, but I may do so yet for FOMO (fear of missing out)—JK (just kidding)! IMHO (in my humble opinion), since YOLO (you only live once), time is too precious to spend on social media. At our Girls Night Out (GNO?) last night I was ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing)! You said Anne’s story about her romance was TMI (too much information)…. IKR (I know, right)? BTW (by the way), ICYMI (in case you missed it), there was a good article on avoiding plastic in last Sunday’s Washington Post—I know you’ve been wondering so HTH (hope this helps) and LMK (let me know) if you adopt any of its strategies. OFC (of course), the article on recycling was TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), but it was mainly about how our landfills are overflowing. NVM (never mind), I’m just SMH (shaking my head) about the state of our environment! Anyway, TIA (Thanks in advance) for walking my dog while I’m away, and YW (you’re welcome) for bringing back some French perfume. You are my BFF (best friend forever) so ILY (I love you) and can’t wait to see you when I get back. TTYL (talk to you later)!
I must admit that, as a former librarian, the very existence of TL;DR breaks my heart, seeming to encapsulate the trend toward shorter attention spans and more shallow understanding. On the other hand, with ever increasing amounts of information available at the click of a mouse, it is not surprising that strategies have developed to digest more of it faster. If you’re hungry for more examples, Webopedia supplies an exhaustive list that casts every idiom or known phrase into a textism, such as 2G2BT for too good to be true and FYEO as for your eyes only (www.smart-words.org/abbreviations/text.html). And we can always come up with our own, such as IOW for in other words, HWGO for here we go again, or IYD for in your dreams. Or how about FY for forever young? As our living language continues to evolve, I wonder what the next neology will be?