Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Inflection of acronyms

I was going to stick to handling Ask The Verb queries in the order they came in, but this one jumps to the front of the line. Sunny writes:

Mr. V,
I sent a link to a recent xkcd comic to a scientist friend of mine. As predicted, he found it funny and replied to tell me so. His e-mails are much more casual than mine, but this latest one got me to thinking. He wrote that he "loled," which seemed an interesting choice. I started wondering about acronyms and their inflection, and if we'll see more of this. I've only heard people say text acronyms to be cute or funny, but I could foresee that changing. So, in the spirit of Asking The Verb, I'd be interested in some expert opinions on this topic (I'm only a linguist-in-training).

Anybody who's sending xkcd links around deserves to be served first. (My guess is that it was probably this brilliant strip, noted immediately in comments on this blog and since treated by Mark Liberman on the Log.*) Sorry that we can't really do much on the 'expert' angle, though.

We've got a couple of steps to get here, I think. Lol ('laughing out loud', if this happens to be some reader's first visit to the internet; see here) came into the language, as far as I can tell, as an adjective: 'And when she said that I was lol' looks utterly normal to me, for instance. But your example involves verbing, and therewith an even bigger reason to move this to the front of the query line. (I don't think that verbing from adjectives is all that common but we do have things to 'to clean'.)

Past tense forms of verbed lol are pretty widespread, including an entry specifically for LOL'd at urban dictionary (also the source of the image above.) See also the wiktionary entry for lolled, here, which defines it as "Simple past tense and past participle of loll. eg: he lolled at the picture". Oddly, that links in wiktionary to a much older English verb, to loll. (It means 'to hang slackly' with extended uses referring to laziness.)

Our contributor Monica said when I emailed her about this:
This brings up yet another question, which is whether your emailing friend meant "loled" as an acronym (pronounced as a word) or an initialism (AKA an abbreviation, where you pronounce the names of the letters). I would take "loled" with just one "l" to be read as an initialism (especially when it's capitalized, as in LOLed). But the wiktionary entry has two "l"s, which looks to me like it should be read as a word. Of course maybe the answer is that the writers are playing with the ambiguity that you get in the written language and there is no single answer.
I know lol as an acronym. And I guess that's what it was here, given the rough-and-ready spelling we get in these situations, but it could certainly be an initialism here. It seems like the likely chronology would be that pronounceable forms might start out as initialisms and become acronyms, but that's idle speculation.

To the broader question, acronyms in languages like English are presumably pretty much instantly treated like words. But verbing of acronyms isn't unique either. Good old fubar has been verbed and has its own urban dictionary entry too. If you check the left column there, you'll find that it's pretty productive derivationally — my fave is fubarite. So, acronyms inflect pretty normally, as far as I know, and they are subject to further derivation, it seems.

But there is yet another reason that I love this query: It's a chance to mention one of the coolest articles out there, about what looks like an oddity in how such new words work in current English:
"Why is it the CIA but not *the NASA? Acronyms, initialisms and definite descriptions."
It's by the noted linguistic blogger and morphologist Heidi Harley, published in American Speech back in 2004. She finds a beautiful little regularity behind these, as you can see from this part of the abstract:
Acronyms behave like proper names and drop the definite determiner: “ERIC produces a variety of publications ... .” Initialisms continue to behave like common compound nouns and retain the determiner: “... the FBI has unique response capabilities ... .” Two frequent exceptions, university names (UCLA) and television networks (NBC), are shown to act like bare locative nominals in English (go to school). Other apparent exceptions (GE, AA) are also shown to exhibit regularity.
H.T. to Monica. Team Verb actually includes other experts in morphology and so we'll wait to see if they have things to add. In the meantime, thanks for Asking The Verb.

* If we're going to refer to Language Log as 'the Log', stuff appearing there seems like it should be on the Log.


Jon Boy said...

I don't know if this makes much of a difference, but "I was lol" sounds very strange to me. I'm not sure I've ever seen that construction, though a Google search does confirm its existence. Maybe I'm just not hanging around on the right sites.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, it's out there. I've gotten that or something virtually identical to it in email -- from faculty, even.

Anonymous said...

An update: I decided to go to the source and asked my friend how he thinks of "lol". The verdict is that, to him, it is an initialism. But why not L'dOL? Hmmm...And then he mocked me for being a nerd.

Mr. Verb said...

A *nerd*!?!? For asking a very reasonable question about language structure? Congratulations, you are no longer a linguist in training, but a linguist.

Johanne said...

I've always been stumped by this question. I suppose it's not written in stone. I have read online news items for what I would assume are well-established, reputable newspapers where I've seen constructions along the lines of, "The suspect was ID'd ..." and that seems supremely wrong to me. I'm no linguist, but I always thought that it would be "IDed", just as I would expect LOLed-- though it seems to take on a different aspect when you don't use the capitalization. LOLed seems more "right/natural" to me than loled, even though some might argue it's a semantic difference.