The Origins of 15 Pieces of Internet Slang
Like any language, the shorthand found on the internet has grown and evolved over time. Check out 15 slang words common in net-speak and how they may have first come into use.
The emojis in heavy circulation today weren’t available to the bulletin board users exploring the internet’s capabilities in the 1980s. Instead, they used phrases like *smile* to indicate a physical reaction to what they had read. By 1989, an online newsletter was suggesting “LOL” for “laughing out loud,” which was intended to convey to the recipient that the amused party was shamelessly giggling in a (presumably) empty room. In the bygone days of letter writing, “LOL” was sometimes added at the end to mean “lots of love” (and has been used on occasion, at least since 1960, as an abbreviation for "little old lady.")
Posting a message with the express intention of stirring dissent has probably been around for as long as anonymous communication has been available. But the first use of “troll” or “trolling” to mean sowing discord dates to 1992, when a newsgroup poster suggested other members “go trolling” in an urban folklore discussion. Just two months later, the term appeared as a noun when another poster on the same newsgroup commented that a post looked like it was done by someone “in troll mode.” The inspiration may have come from one existing definition of trolling: dragging a baited line through water to see if anything bites.
Early internet mailing lists could sometimes be tedious to read, especially if a member was asking questions that had already been covered. One administrator for a NASA-affiliated group in 1982 decided to assemble a list of frequently-asked questions, dubbed FAQ, for the benefit of new members and fatigued current subscribers.
While this is likely the first use of the “FAQ” acronym online, the term Frequently Asked Questions to describe lists of questions and answers had been used for decades by this point—which means it’s entirely possible that in some box somewhere there's an even older occurrence of "FAQ."
Woot, sometimes typed as “w00t,” is used as an exclamation to indicate extreme interest or eagerness. Some journalists used it to try and replicate the low-tech sounds made by video games of the early 1980s. A 1993 song using “whoot” in the title may have further popularized the term; a less likely—but more fun—origin could have come from fantasy role-playing gamers, who shortened “wow, loot!” to “woot!” when stumbling upon a virtual bounty.
For Your Information (FYI), a way of prefacing some information a reader might find pertinent, was in use long before the first computers were logging on: FYI was the name of a radio program from the 1940s that offered breaking news on efforts to curb sabotage in the U.S.
Bragging about getting one over on another internet citizen by saying you’ve “pwned” them is a word tree with a lot of branches. Chess players describing their moves, like “pawn to knight,” may have scribbled shorthand that led to “pwn.” More likely, computer users adopted the phrase by typing too quickly and missing the “o” in “owned” to hit the neighboring “p.”
The “Not Safe for Work” acronym didn’t begin to get play until after 2000, when a growing number of people were able to connect to the internet on company time. As links to potentially-offensive sites proliferated, considerate users would caution others on the clock that opening them might be frowned upon by human resources.
Along with newbie, n00b, and newb, getting labeled a “noob” means you’re displaying only minimal knowledge of a subject being discussed. (That, or your join date on a forum is relatively recent.) One possible origin of the term "newbie" (and hence, "n00b") is from the word “newie,” which was used beginning in the 1850s in the U.S. and Australia to mean, not surprisingly, someone or something new. (The phrase was also reportedly used by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War to describe the newly-deployed.) One of the earliest mentions on a newsgroup was from 1988, when a poster complained a computer board was being bombarded by inane questions from newcomers.
Eye-catching (and often misleading) headlines have been a part of the media for centuries and were often derided as “yellow journalism.” The term “clickbait” came into prominence when it became possible for dubious media sources to provide only a brief description of content before someone could navigate to the link and read the whole thing. The word may have first appeared in a 2006 blog post to describe content that valued number of clicks over quality, derived from an earlier use of the term “linkbait” that same year.
“For the win” can be traced to the exclamations of game show hosts of the 1970s, who might precede a question or reveal with its significance to the player. In the early 2000s, online role-players began to adopt the phrase when they selected a territory that would make them the dominant participant.
“Good game” or “great game” cropped up around 1994, when players of early multiplayer online games would switch opponents in rapid succession. Little chat windows allowed them to offer a contrite acknowledgment of a game well-played. “GG” could also mean a contest was about to end—and poorly, for the opposing user.
“Oh My God!” typically denotes astonishment at the level of adorableness displayed by cats online. That wasn’t the intention of Lord John Fisher, who wrote to Winston Churchill in September 1917 and used the acronym in a letter, likely due to the fact he was accustomed to using naval shorthand.
“Throwback Thursday” has become an omnipresent way for sites and social media to get nostalgic on a given day of the week. The practice has its origins with a sneaker collector: In 2006, he decided to post a favorite shoe from the past in order to take a break from all the new-shoe news he was relating, adopting “throwback” from the practice of sports teams releasing retro "throwback" jerseys. The alliterative TBT was born.
Short for “elite,” as in “elite gamers,” leet (or "leetspeak") is also the name given for translating communication in numerical code. The practice began in the 1980s, when computer hackers were looking to relay messages without having to explicitly state anything, or have their dialogue picked up by search engines and text filters.
15. SNAIL MAIL
Anything other than near-instant electronic mail has come to be known as “snail mail,” which can take days to arrive. But the term pre-dates e-mail by decades. In addition to early uses of similar phrases as far back as the 1800s, the post office used the phrase in the 1960s to help promote the use of zip codes. Without them, the postal service declared mail would “move at a snail’s pace.”