Y Abbreve? Idk, mabes cuz it’s totes what evry1’s doing!

By Denebola
Published: November 2008

By Rebecca Goldstein

At Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, everyone says “legit. At Syracuse University, it’s “obvi instead of obvious. At Godwin High School in Richmond, Virginia, the juniors say “belig to shorten belligerent. And at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, the senior class “natch (naturally) owns the school.

Around the country, high school and college students are “abbreving–using shortened forms of common words–in everyday, spoken conversations as well as in text messages, instant messages, and emails.

“My fave five abbreves would have to be natch [naturally], cred [incredible], and obvi [obviously], Bolles High School senior Colleen Oktavec wrote in a Facebook message. Colleen listed three words under her “fave five because “fave five is a kind of “abbreve in itself, a way to say “favorite that plays off the ubiquitous advertisements for a T-Mobile cell phone plan that offers unlimited minutes for five “favorite people in a customer’s contact list.

Television and movie writers are not immune to the appeal of abbreves: characters in the smash hit film Juno used “probs for “probably, and a controversial ad campaign for the television series Gossip Girl, which draws three million viewers a week, flashed the letters “OMFG (an acronym for “Oh My F**king God) on the screen with clips of the stars making out with their boyfriends. A successful television commercial for a AT&T texting plan featured a young girl speaking in “txt to her mother as subtitles translated into full English. The girl’s mother asks who she’s been texting, and the daughter responds, “Idk, my bff Jill? as the subtitle flashes, “I don’t know, my best friend forever, Jill? Colleen, completing the cycle, now uses “bffjill to describe her friends.

For Lowry Hemphill, an Associate Professor in the Department of Language and Literacy at Wheelock College in Boston, the confinement of abbreves to teenage lexicon, and especially female teenage lexicon, is hardly surprising. She classifies abbreves as what linguists call a “marker, or a symbolic representation of one’s social identity.

“The idea is, you use these kinds of forms to show what group you belong to, she explained. “You use these forms to show you’re someone your age, not older or younger. The thing about these kinds of markers is, in an unconscious way, they’re doing identity work.

The entire field of sociolinguistics is based on the theory that people from different social groups use different kinds of language, and abbreving is no exception.

“It’s an unconscious process, she said. “When I spend time with my teenage and young adult children, I find myself wanting to say things like ‘Ëœprobs.’ You almost feel like just by interacting with people you pick it up, but you also pick up signals about who talks this way and who doesn’t.

The use of abbreves is almost exclusively confined to one age group, usually adolescent, and one gender, usually female. Hemphill noted that abbreves have a long history, but that they have always been a “girly thing.

“It was kind of 1920s flapper slang, she said. “It’s been around – it keeps reasserting itself. It’s debutante slang from a while back. The world “natch, in particular, was common in the 1920s. “Your grandmother might say ‘Ëœnatch’, she said.

Andrea Marcin, a senior at Pikesville High School in suburban Baltimore, is familiar with the cultural association of abbreves with airheaded femininity and censors herself accordingly.

“With girls, she said, “you could really go up to a lunch table and say, ‘ËœBeeteedubs, he’s totally going out with her right now.’ You could never do that with a group of boys. (Beeteedubs is an abbreviation of BTW, itself an acronym for “by the way).

But abbreving is even more strongly associated with young people than it is with ditzy girls, an age distinction that prompted a scathing satire of a New York Times Magazine column on “campuspeak by VH1′s Best Week Ever. The bitingly sarcastic piece, written by comedian Alex Bragg on the Friday after the column ran, appeared on VH1′s website under the headline “Old NY Times Writers Trying to Understand How ‘ËœThe Kids’ Talk is, Like, Totes Adorkable. Another criticism, this time by Alexandra LaManna of the Daily Northwestern, was titled, “Like, OMG. WTF is with Abbreves? In both cases, the young mock the old (William Safire, the author of the Times column, is 77) for their attempt examine a phenomenon younger than they.

On the other side of the age line, teenagers censor themselves around adults who either might not be familiar with or might be offended by their abbreving.

“I use them with people who I am informal with, (i.e. friends, family, and other students) not with people who I am formal with (i.e. professors, people I work for), Lanie Abisdris, a junior at Syracuse, wrote in an email.

Madelyn Lefebvre, a junior at Vanguard High School in Ocala, Florida, agrees.

“I abbreve everything when I’m around family and friends. I guess they’ve gotten used to it over time. When it comes to school and work, I try to cut down on the abbreves, although an occasional ‘Ëœtotes’ or ‘Ëœobvi’ may slip out, she said.

Marcin and Hemphill both attribute the twenty-first century resurgence of abbreves to the internet and other forms of what sociolinguists call “TMC, or technologically-mediated communication.

“I’m on AIM [America Online Instant Messaging] a lot, Marcin said. “Seeing the constant ‘Ëœlol’ [laugh out loud], or how ‘Ëœlol’ changes to ‘Ëœlulz’ and ‘Ëœrofl’ [rolling on the floor laughing], or the parodies ‘Ëœroflstiltskin’ [a play on 'ËœRumplestiltskin'] and ‘Ëœlollapalooza’ [the name of a summer rock festival] really contributes to my using it.

Hemphill finds it particularly interesting that some abbreves that originated in chat rooms and emails have continued despite predictive-text cell phone software that makes abbreviations largely obsolete in text messaging.

“Some of the stuff is a heritage of an earlier generation of online communication, technology-mediated communication. ‘ËœLOL’ comes from email chat rooms and from IMing that predate texting¦It’s interesting that as the technology shifts, some of these forms carry over, she said.

Hemphill believes that the reason some abbreves seem to “stick on some campuses while others are popular elsewhere has to do with a theory of language and social networks developed in the 1980′s. Based on ethnographic studies of the “Catholic accent in Belfast and of a subtle idiosyncrasy called vowel fronting at a high school in suburban Detroit, sociolinguists have concluded that slang, accents, and other unique language styles develop in environments they deem “dense multiplex social networks, essentially, social groups in which people know each other through multiple contexts.

High schools are the quintessential example of dense multiplex social networks. In high school, students go to class together, participate in sports other activities together, often go to the same places of worship, and often have parents who are friends with one another. High schools and college campuses are the most likely places for new slang to catch on, while student use of the internet provides more and more opportunities to shorten language.

Zach Herlich, a junior at Godwin High, witnessed the effects of dense multiplex social networks firsthand.

“Me and one of my good friends just started to abbreviate things, and then it spread to my entire school, he said. “Another high school made a video attacking us for using abbreves.

In the video, titled “A MESSAGE TO ALL GOD EAGS (Godwin Eagles): FIN YO WORS! Becca Horton, a junior at rival Hermitage High School in Richmond, declares, “You are so presh [precious] right now, but you’re getting a little belig. It’s making it so awk [awkward]. It’s not legit anymore! Horton, wearing a Godwin Eagles sweatshirt, draws out every abbreve while her friends laugh hysterically in the background.

Despite the now nationwide use of abbreves, Marcin is cautious.

“It notches down what people think of you, she said. “I’ll use ‘Ëœridic,’ but not ‘Ëœobvi.’ It’s so valley girl.

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