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Elder Wisdom

A Taxonomy Of LOLs

circa 1945: Two couples walk arm-in-arm outdoors, laughing. The wind blows the ladies' hats and the men's hair. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You’re not laughing out loud. That’s the first thing. Oh sure, maybe you were laughing out loud once upon a time when you typed LOL into an AOL chat room window back in 1874. You might have even been laughing your ass off (LMAO!), or even rolling on the floor laughing (ROFL, or ROTFL if you were a completist). But chances are if you are typing LOL these days, you’re not doing any laughing of any sort. You’re probably not even laughing on the inside, which everyone’s favorite reverse clown move. You are just typing LOL and proceeding about your day.

And yet, you still type “LOL,” and quite often. But WHY? What purpose does it serve in that moment? Well, I’ve lived through the adoption of widespread internet usage in America. I’ve also lived through the release of a movie called LOL, featuring Miley Cyrus as a character NAMED LOL (short for Lola, which I suppose is the destiny for all current Lolas). See the trailer for yourself here and then we’ll continue forgetting that it ever happened.

As such, I’ve become something of an unlicensed online sociologist, which is the BEST kind of online sociologist. I’ve watched LOL go from having a single, narrow definition (“This is so funny that I am now laughing audibly!”) to it having roughly 5,000 different connotations within the greater online discourse. I have been on both the giving and the receiving end of most of these variants, such as LOL B.1.618, which is among the more lethal strains of LOL. And so, for your sake but mostly for my own, I have endeavored to classify all of these LOLs. Take my hand and join me now on a tour of greater LOLdom.

1. The bomb defuser

I just sent a text to my friend confessing that I accidentally crashed his pickup truck into a light pole. OH GOD STEVE MIGHT KILL ME! I HOPE HE DOESN’T HATE ME FOREVER. But then Steve texts back: “LOL it’s fine.” Now, this exact same reply without the “LOL” would be interpreted as Steve already planning to slit my throat the the next time he sees me. But since we DO have a LOL, I know that Steve will NOT hate me forever and will NOT kill me. It means Steve comes to me in peace. This is reassuring. One day we’ll look back on the crash and laugh. Maybe out loud!

2. Affirmative!

“Oh my God did you see Barry Petchesky do an ice luge shot of corn oil at that party last night?” “LOL yeah he’s still on my toilet as we speak.”

3. Actually I’m a troll and I live for your suffering (also: LULZ)

It was 13 years ago when Mattathias Schwartz of the New York Times Magazine profiled the troll Weev, the ringleader of a 4chan board that, among other things, mined the suicide of a seventh grader for meme-able LULZ. What are LULZ, you might ask?

“Lulz” means the joy of disrupting another’s emotional equilibrium. “Lulz is watching someone lose their mind at their computer 2,000 miles away while you chat with friends and laugh,” said one ex-troll who, like many people I contacted, refused to disclose his legal identity.

Good thing such practices didn’t become more widespread, or adopted by half of the American electorate!

4. I’m not mad I’m actually laughing right now, etc.

Let’s say I get accused of murdering six orphans in cold blood. What’s the best way to clear my name and defend myself? I’ll tell you how: by IMMEDIATELY hopping on Twitter to laugh at my haters. “LOL people out there say some of the WILDEST shit! I guess they need to find SOME way to distract themselves! [painting nails emoji].” I can also add a SECOND LOL to end of this sentiment to let people really know that this is all high comedy to me. I’m bulletproof to your feelings. Pick easier targets, Cancel Nation!

5. Here’s something amusing to me and to me only

“Marnie, I didn’t get your package because I’m actually vacationing in Bali right now LOL.” If you want to be really insufferable about it, go ahead and make that a lowercase “lol” on the back end. International luxury travel is but a casual aside to you.

5a. I’M SO ADORABLY STOOPID!

“LOL just left out my shotgun and the neighbor stole it. Guess I shouldn’t have left it loaded LOL”

6. I am humoring you

Ever been forwarded something that was amusing to its sender and no one else? We all have. Insipid forwards are no longer the sole domain of your mom. I get forwards from everyone now, because apparently my friends’ affection for every meme they stumble upon (doesn’t have to be a new meme and, in fact, almost never is) must be validated. So what do I do when Bobby texts me a CLASSIC Imgur link of a cat hanging onto an 90-year-old man’s bare nutsack? “LOL.” That’s the reply. That’s me telling Bobby, “This is a receipt confirming the ostensibly funny thing you sent me has been viewed. I am now telling you LOL so that I do not have to engage any further.” That way, everyone leaves the exchange satisfied. Bobby thinks I laughed (I didn’t). And I don’t have to text him again until he sends me some other pointless bullshit.

7. OK that was actually funny so let me tack on a few extra OLOLOLOLOLs to make it clear that this is no ordinary LOL

If I really do laugh out loud at something online now, “LOL” is never my reply, because everyone knows now that LOL doesn’t mean what it used to mean. So I have to throw down one of many alternative expressions, such as:

  • “LOLOLOLOLOL”
  • “/dying”
  • “AHAHAHAHAHAHA” I like to add a B to the front of that for the full Homer Simpson effect
  • The emoji of your choice EXCEPT for that stupid crying laughing emoji because that one is also now a lie. Fuck you if you use it.
  • “Holy shit”
  • “Okay, that really did make me laugh out loud”

8. Something bad happened to me but I’m publicly trying to take it with a modicum of good cheer

This is often where the lowercase form is used as a way of understating your trauma. “lol they towed my Kia.” This is a clever bit of usage because it invites everyone else to publicly react to the news the way that you are PRIVATELY reacting to it. “Holy shit that SUCKS.” “What the fuck?!” “Fucking cops, man. Fucking. Cops.” Very easy way to get people on your side. And why the fuck DID they tow your car? You were just about to move it!

9. Get a load of what THIS asshole just said/did

“Did you see Bob Baffert’s piss hay excuse?” “LOL yeah that was great”

10. You people are so stupid

Every post prefaced with “LOL” is often followed by a tossed-off display of breathtaking condescension, much of it often misplaced. “LOL y’all really thought Israel and Palestine would just magically get along.” No one thought that, but did it stop you from ACTING like everyone did? LOL no. LOL you really think your sorry-ass tweets mean a goddamn thing, huh?

11. My favorite team/player just fucked up in characteristic fashion

LOL Jets.

12. All right all right, you got me there. Guilty!

“Drew, did I just see you wearing a goddamn Big Dogs t-shirt at the beach?” “LOL yeah that was me. I really gotta donate that shirt.”

13. I just pissed you off and I’m too much of a dick to care (variant B.1.618)

This one. This one drives me absolutely fucking nuts. Have I talked about my visceral hatred of this LOL strain to my therapist? Possibly. BUT IT’S STILL REALLY FUCKING ANNOYING. I get pissed off at things big and small. Sometimes my anger is justified (you haven’t paid me in six months), and sometimes my anger is still justified but on a much smaller scale (you said True Romance was “meh”). Either way, when I tell you, “Hey, that was really fucking annoying what you just did,” and you only answer is “lol,” I have the legal right to TEAR YOUR FUCKING HEAD OFF. You rude sack of shit. Take your “lol” and cram it up your dick!

14. That wasn’t funny at all.