How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.
Here's a new word that's been showing up online: smol. It's an alternative version of small, but it doesn't just refer to size—it's more about something or someone being really cute.
Urban Dictionary has two relevant definitions at the moment. According to user geese-teeth on June 6, 2015, the word means "Something extremely small and cute," as in, "That kitty is so smol." This example is consistent with a Buzzfeed list from May: 20 Baby Animals Who Are Too Smol. A few examples where smol looks like small:
But more recent uses aren't as literal: In September 2015, Urban Dictionary user larry stylinson af defined it as, "something or someone that is extremely small and just absolutely adorable" with the example "harry styles is in love with a smol boy called louis tomlinson." Searching on Twitter tells us that this reference to members of One Direction is a very common use for smol, even though they're not especially diminutive (they're all between 5 feet 11 inches and 5 feet 7 inches), so smol is clearly taking on a figurative meaning too—like calling a romantic partner baby. Here are some non-literal examples:
Smol also occurs describing a few non-literal diminutives, such as "my smol son" (frequently used by One Direction fans, despite the fact that they're generally around the same age as the band members), "smol bean" (especially used on Vine and by fans of Tyler Joseph), and with the cinnamon roll meme.
There are also lots of results for "smol" on Tumblr, but interestingly, Tumblr users seem to apply smol to their own selfies, irrespective of gender, whereas Twitter and Vine users are more likely to use it in reference to male popstars.
Why this particular spelling? The o might evoke a cuter pronunciation, while dropping the l could simply be to make the word, well, smaller. But there's some evidence that replacing a with o in certain words is part of a larger phenomenon: I also found examples of tol for tall and lorge for large.
And I'm not sure if this is part of the origins of smol or merely a clever wordplay in retrospect, but "he puts the smol in smolder" really makes it clear that we're not just talking about tiny kittens.