Welcome to the twenty-fifth installment of More Than Words, where I take queer words of all sorts and smash them apart and see what makes them tick. Every week I’ll be dissecting a different word, trying to figure out where it came from, how it has evolved, where it might be going, and what it all means. It’s like reading the dictionary through a prism. Feel free to send word suggestions to [email protected].
Header by Rory Midhani
This past week, the news was all over contemporary tech-addled linguistics, because trends.
Everyone had an opinion on the Oxford Dictionary Online choosing “selfie” as their Word Of The Year (CNN: “The most esteemed guardian of the English language has bestowed a prestigious honor upon debatably the most embarrassing phenomenon of the digital age.” The New Yorker: “The modern-day selfie is… a novel iteration of an old form.” The Washington Post: “In this way, each selfie is one more breath blown into “the Oversoul,” which Emerson defined as the “common heart,” as individuals knit together in the ether.”). Ben Crair at The New Republic parsed out why the period has become the angriest punctuation mark (at least when texting. I’M not mad). The Atlantic‘s Megan Garber traced the evolution of the word “because” from a subordinating conjunction into an “exceptionally bloggy, aggressively casual, implicitly ironic, and… highly adaptable” preposition. Meanwhile, at The Toast, Tia Baheri talked about the beautiful complexity of “Tumblr-internet-speak” — how tweaks build on specific references build on general cultural knowledge until you get constructions like “I have lost all ability to can.”
While reading explanations of all these innovations that have slowly snuck into my typing vocabulary, I was struck by how many others I’m susceptible to that weren’t mentioned. Sure, I find myself just-cant-ing every once in a while. But most of the new things I’m really attached to aren’t just internet-speak — they’re QUEER internet-speak. According to Baheri, internet linguistics constitutes an unusual dialect because its users are “a group of people who have insider knowledge of the English language… placed in a new, unfamiliar, virtual space” where they have new communicative limitations (lack of tone, lack of context, time-jumps) AND new tools with which to fix them (images, commenting structures, hashtags, etc.). In that case, queer internet linguistics does the regular type one better — it happens when a group that’s already used to creating its own dialect is put in this unfamiliar, resource-heavy space. No wonder we’re ahead of the curve.
In the interest of giving this new sub-field the credit it deserves, I researched some current thinking on internet linguistics and applied it to some of my favorite queer-blog innovations. Read on for everything from asterisks to whiskey kittens.
Acronyms & Abbreviations
Long before trend piece writers took on complex grammatical constructions and the true meaning of cat pictures, they were all over the abbrev trend — a trend which, TBH, frightened many people. A quick scan of old articles reveals the following themes: Texting and IM-ing layabouts are mauling the language! “LOL” is showing up in English papers! “POS” = “Parent Over Shoulder” = teens are doing weird, secret sex roleplays whenever you’re not in the room! It was a bonafide wtch-hnt.
Five years ago, David Crystal, the OG of internet linguistics, wrote a book called Txting: The Gr8 Db8 that debunked a lot of the mistruths that had originally popped up: “As the research built up, it showed conclusively that none of these things were happening, that in the average text message only about 10 percent of the words are abbreviated, that most of the abbreviations in texting are ancient… something like “C” for “see” and “U” for “you” and all of those, they go back hundreds of years in English” — back, in fact, to Victorian puzzles that were kind of also the first emojis.
As internet language has evolved, abbreviations and acronyms have gone from simple time-savers and fun puzzles to what linguist John McWhorter categorizes as “pragmatic particles,” which serve as empathy markers (“lol” means “I feel you” about as often as it actually means “laughing out loud”) or denote shifts in tone (“hey” has become a way to change topics). Based on my experience with Queer Internet Linguistics, I’d argue that they can do even more. Take, for example, my favorite acronym, which was invented by Autostraddle and has since entered the queer internet lexicon: “ALH” for “Alternative Lifestyle Haircut.”
A Google search for “alternative lifestyle haircut” leads almost exclusively to Autostraddle and similarly queer blogs — if I were to drop it in conversation, my very savvy sixteen-year-old sister probably wouldn’t get it. The phrase codes for a specific and common queer experience, even as the thing it describes gets more and more broadly popular. It’s a way to reclaim a term that has been used to other us — the mundanity of “haircut” offsets the clinical bent of “alternative lifestyle,” and the whole thing together is silly and savvy at the same time. Acronymizing takes it a step further, with its suggestion that this supposedly “alternative” thing is actually so rampant we can get the gist in three letters. Three letters I suddenly want to get carved into my sideburns.
Punctuation was originally invented to help people transcribe speech, but, as Ben Crair points out, “as the written word gained autonomy from the spoken word, [it] became a way to structure a text according to its own unique hierarchy and logic.” Commas go in certain places; semicolons in others. But since texting and online chatting have become stand-ins for speech, punctuation marks do double-duty as tone-denoters and embellishments. The period is angry and the exclamation point is a “sincerity marker.” Ellipses make things more dramatic. The slash has been turned back into a word and repurposed as a sort of duality marker, allowing the public and the private to be juxtaposed in one phrase (“Just got a bunch of work done SLASH watched ten episodes of Words With Girls and inhaled a quart of nutella.”)
Identity-based communities like ours have embraced punctuation for a slightly different reason. While the above marks have been co-opted to indicate defined tones, we’ve adopted some marks specifically because they don’t mean anything specific yet. Take the asterisk at the end of “trans*.” In many command-line interfaces, such as Unix and Microsoft Command Prompt, the asterisk is a “wildcard” character that allows you to make searches with holes in them (for example, if you google “cook * with *” it’ll recommend you some food pairs). Thus, “trans*” has gained popularity as an extra-inclusive word — a way to suggest everything from “trans woman” to “trans man” to “questioning” without the inevitable limitations of actually listing all possibilities. Like the current and controversial movement to reclaim “queer,” it’s a word that tries to skirt what can be hard about words — that they’ve settled into fixed definitions, when groups and identities are often not so fixed.
This inclusiveness is also the effect of silly identifier-portmanteaus like “homogay” or “queermo.” They stick because, like “ALH,” they’re both in-the-know and kind of lightheartedly cynical about it, and they work because, like “trans*,” they try hard not to leave anyone out (in this case because they can’t, because they’re made up). (They’re given additional power by a sort of fake-ignorance also found in constructions like “teh interwebs.”)
A portmanteau was originally just a suitcase. Lewis Carroll first used it to mean “two meanings packed up into one word” in 1871, in Through The Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty is translating the poem “Jabberwocky” for Alice: “Well, ‘slithey’ means lithe and slimy… and ‘mimsy’ means flimsy and miserable!” Children have been bugging their parents with them ever since. As Jen Doll of The Wire points out, the Internet is a great place to sew portmanteaus — they’re easy to make, kind of amusing, and fit well in a hashtag. A ton of the new crop of Oxford Dictionary Online words (“phablet”; “buzzworthy”; “jorts”) are portmanteaus.
Kristin Russo from Everyone Is Gay has seen EIG creations “gaybeans” and “peepsexual” (“meaning you just like people, the end”) take flight beyond their immediate commenter community. Russo credits their popularity with “the fact that the queer community has a much more fluid relationship with language — words mean different things to different people, at different times. Plus we have much more experience with what a word can do — i.e. how “queer” can be incredible to some and horrible to others, or how much power the choice of pronoun can have.” Or the choice between “queerzbian” and “lesbigay.”
References and Catchphrases
Slogans have been around literally forever. “Every social group has its own linguistic bonding mechanism,” as David Crystal says, and there’s no better way to ground yourself in a certain generation or region or other identity subsection than by breaking out a well-timed “what’s the sitch?”.
The internet takes this to an extreme. If you were an alien and landed on the comments section of certain websites, you’d be forgiven for thinking all of Earth trafficked exclusively in quotations. There’s a Mean Girls gif economy, at this point.
Unsurprisingly, we have this down, too. Remember who invented “You have a lot of feelings?” It was Shane:
How did it spread? It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s true that our favorite L Word recapper, a certain Riese Bernard, was pretty fond of the phrase. Like most that end up catching on, it seemed to sum up a large, useful idea in the kind of all-purpose small package you can detonate in most social situations. So she started using it in L Word recaps and also in her everyday life, and soon it entered the lesbian lexicon. Is it a direct ancestor of the currently popular “all the feels” and its many variants? Did Tina Fey steal it from Shane? (Mean Girls came out a few months after the critical L Word episode. Just saying). Am I drawn to this conspiracy theory because I want Tina Fey to say it to Shane? It’s hard to know for sure. As Britanni pointed out when I asked her about You Do You (another phrase of uncertain origin), “it’s hard to know exactly where most things started or who deserves the credit, as most sayings aren’t THAT original and can be thoughts that plenty of people have separate from one another… it’s more a matter of who has the power to disseminate it most effectively.”
If there’s anything the queer internet has, it’s disseminating power within our community. We come to the internet to find each other, to feel like a part of something that exists outside of our immediate reach. It’s no wonder we’ve used the tools of the internet to find unique ways to talk to and support each other. Sure, other corners of the web might be sprouting innovations and memes left and right. But when it comes to inclusivity within an exclusive group, we internet homogays have it down.