FWIW - The origins of 'Net shorthand

Leetspeak, Internet shorthand, computer jargon for instant messaging -- whatever you call them, initialisms like BRB, LOL and BTW have now entered the public lexicon. (I know a few teenagers who actually say LOL to each other in person!)

Maybe we're in such a big hurry that we don't want to type "be right back" or "laughing out loud." Or it could be that these terms communicate more in abbreviated form.

As with any new language, there's always an etymology -- a way to track the first recorded occurrence of a term and find its origins.

To find them for the most common initialisms, I scoured Internet chat forums and checked in with a noted dictionary expert, trying to find the first usages.

BRB (be right back)

According to one entry in the Urban Dictionary, the term BRB became popular on America Online. AOL released its popular chat client in 1997, and it seems likely that was the first time a large number of casual PC users would have a reason to type BRB and then resume the chat.

However, Ben Zimmer, an executive producer at the Visual Thesaurus and a former editor at the American Oxford Dictionary, said that BRB is one of the few terms still in wide use today that was listed on the Jargon File, circa 1990. It states the abbreviation was reported as being used in proprietary commercial networks such as GEnie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange) and CompuServe, which began in 1985 and 1979, respectively, before the World Wide Web became popular.

But wait, he also notes that textfiles.com shows the term in a May 1989 "FidoNews" newsletter.

And he points to even earlier usage by Apple developers on a Jan. 3, 1989, Apple II Development Forum Conference Log on textfiles.com. So it's safe to assume it was used as early as 1988.

GG (great game)

One of the first popular multiplayer games was Marathon on the Mac, and this post-mortem comment after a multiplayer match has become part of the netiquette since then. Marathon came out in 1994, and before that time, multiplayer gaming was a rare luxury for those who actually had a modem. Marathon was also one of the first games to support LAN play. Furthermore, it was such an addictive multiplayer experience that it likely spawned quick post-game comments such as GG and others.

LOL (laughing out loud)

An undated online post by Wayne Pearson claims LOL was first used on a BBS chatroom called Viewline in Canada. He says the usage then spread to the GEnie service. As noted earlier, GEnie was a competitor to CompuServe, Prodigy, Dialcom, Dialog, Delphi, Lexis/Nexis and other proprietary networks back in the day. Pearson explained that other variations -- such as *smile* -- just didn't convey enough emotion. At the very least, Pearson's post shows up first in a search for "origin of LOL" at Google.com.

Zimmer notes that the first usage of LOL appeared on the aforementioned "FidoNews" newsletter in 1989.

TTYL (talk to you later)

This one seems to be of a more recent vintage, since it doesn't appear on the Jargon File. Once again, it likely became popular on AOL where chatting is more immediate and one to one. (There's no reason to say TTYL on Usenet, for example.)

However, Zimmer points out that TTYL appeared as early as 1985, according to textfiles.com.

ROFLOL/ROTFL/ROFL/ROTF (variations of the concept of "rolling on the floor laughing out loud)

ROFLOL was used by someone named Dave Alexander in a Usenet post to the group alt.rock-n-roll in 1992.

ROTF (without the L for "laughing") appears in the 1990 Jargon File. The next year, the Jargon File contained the term ROTFL.

ROFL (without the T for "the") was used in a Usenet post to rec.ham-radio in 1989, so we know it has been around for at least 19 years.

RTFM (read the *blank* manual)

Again, likely invented in the '80s on Usenet, where scolding people who ask inane questions is commonplace. Also, thick manuals were once included with software back in those days and reading them was even considered a good idea. The very first post I could find on Usenet that includes RTFM was in 1983 and refers to the term having been used by "VMS people." VMS is an old server operating system.

KK (Okay)

One entry in the Urban Dictionary says KK originated as a gaming term, a shortened version of "okay" that adds extra emphasis, as in "okay, okay." The first time I saw KK was on an AOL IM. It doesn't really work for texting (most of us don't write back "okay" when we text) or in Usenet discussions. It could also mean, "okay cool" where the C is replaced with a K. Oddly, the origins are murky: it's widely used, especially in IM, but no one knows exactly why we don't just say K [Editor's note: I and several IM buddies just use "K"].

AFAIK (as far as I know)

One entry on Answers.com guesses that AFAIK originated as an SMS term, which seems to make sense considering it's reducing 16 characters down to six.

Zimmer indicated it appeared much earlier on Usenet -- around 1988.

BTW (by the way)

I remember hearing both BTW and its close cousin FYI during my corporate days in the mid-'90s, but they don't appear to be part of BBS and Usenet lore.

BTW appears in the first Jargon File dating all the way back to 1981.

Zimmer says both BTW and FYI originated long before the computer was even invented. "FYI definitely predates the Digital Age," he says. "The first use noted by the OED is as a title of a radio program in 1941 that explained how the United States is combating sabotage and espionage."

JK (just kidding)

Tween girls say JK to one another in person and online, but it appears to be a recent invention. It's not listed in any of the early jargon dictionaries, and it wasn't common back in the early days of AOL and MSN instant messengers. Now, it's used so often it has become annoying.

FWIW (for what it's worth)

Like BTW and FYI, the term FWIW probably started in the '80s or '90s as an office term -- the snobbish boss giving his 2 cents on a memo or e-mail, for example. It's not used much in online chats, and its usage on BBS systems is questionable -- it's not exactly an "elite" leetspeak term by any means. FWIW shows up as early as 1989 in this list of computer jargon.

G2G (got to go)

The etymology for this one is tough, but my guess is that its usage came about on multiplayer gaming systems such as Doom and Marathon because players would engage in death matches for hours and then finally admit that they needed to eat some food or go to sleep. I recall seeing this one when I used to play Doom back in the late middle to late '90s when a co-worker admitted he was being a derelict.

The Online Slang Dictionary includes a reference to GTG from 2002.

Do you know the origins of any of these terms? What are your favorite initialisms? Did we miss a common leetspeak term? Post in comments and let us know how you feel, kk?

John Brandon is a freelance writer, book author and Computerworld blogger, who worked as an IT manager for 10 years.

This story, "FWIW - The origins of 'Net shorthand" was originally published by Computerworld.

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