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@Large | Michael Andor Brodeur

The sound of old people laughing: lol

My grandmother’s laugh was a sound I’ll never forget. Deep, wheezy, fitful, it betrayed her appetite for nonsense as well as her secret smoking habit. One day, I thought, I’d have a laugh like that: the laugh of an old person.

That day came earlier than expected when Facebook released a study last week on the “Not-So-Universal Language of Laughter,” which, among other things, determined once and for all that “lol” is for olds, i.e. people over 25, which I am way.

Full disclosure: I lol. I proudly lol, actually. I’ve lol’d since AOL. And I still remember the great hill of shame I had to overcome then before I allowed myself the freedom to lol in chats and texts, so afraid had I been of appearing (if anything) too young, or — as is the hazard of the lol — insincere in my loling.


Sometimes I even lolol. And no, I’m no literalist; I don’t believe lolol ultimately means I “laugh out loud out loud.” So close has my bond with lol grown that it has attained more of a glyphic grace; I don’t even see the letters anymore, it’s just a clear, symmetrical symbol of me having just laughed, or almost laughed: lol.

Lols account for just 1.9 percent of “e-laughs” in the week’s worth of de-identified posts surveyed by Facebook for the study. A full half of the laughs were “haha”s and a full third were emoji (the rest were the more mischievous “hehe”). Interestingly, Boston showed a preference for haha over emoji, while New York showed exactly the opposite to a nearly equal degree. San Francisco, meanwhile, maintains an atypically high hehe rate. (Sheesh, tell me something I don’t know, Facebook laughter study, lol.)

But despite the current dominance of haha, those emerging emoji laughers are younger (and, something the study doesn’t say, more abundant on platforms like Snapchat) and gaining in power. Your trendy haha is just a lol waiting to happen, is what I’m saying.


Getting outed as old just because of my lols feels particularly unfair because I regard my e-laughter preferences as existing fluidly across a vast continuum where context is everything. Facebook found that 52 percent of users laughed a single type of laugh, with roughly 20 percent employing two different types; I’ve got at least five or six standard go-tos, ranging from timid chuckles to full-throated hardy-har belly laughs.

I lol, and yes, I haha. I deploy the many variants of the expandable “ha” system, from the pat (almost insulting) single “ha” to the unquestionably genuine “hahahahahaha.” I also dabble in hehe (husbandly flirting; self-conscious chuckling) and various emoji (chatting while walking). But I also freehand some of my laughs.

A sudden drink-spitting outburst of laughter often earns a “horf!” (though an element of cruelty to the laughing matter can turn it into an “ohhhhhhhhorf”). Both the climactic topic-topping “hoo-hoooooo!” and the vaguely villainous “bwahahaha” bear striking onomatopoeic resemblance to my laugh in real life. I’ve used “*snorf*” to indicate a laugh re-routed through the nose; I’ve used stage directions like “-snicker-” and “-chortle-”; and I’ve used pop culture redirects like “/Nelson laugh/” and “/Marge noise/.”

The extra effort put into customizing a laugh is a way of quelling the primary qualm that dogs lols: the suspicion that the laugher isn’t really laughing. At times, I’ve gone to the extent of treating a chat like a caption of the moment: “<----- literally loling.”


This doesn’t even count the frequency with which I, and plenty of others, consult countless memes (nothing follows up a bad pun like Bad Pun Husky), or Giphy.com for the perfect animated GIF. Sometimes only a clip of Newman from “Seinfeld” can convey a particular type of sinister delight; sometimes Anderson Cooper’s debilitating giggle-fits make perfect silent ambassadors for my own; and sometimes sarcastic laughter is best expressed through professional wrestlers, sarcastically laughing.

Laughter, like humor, finds many ways in and around language. In a way, laughter is its own language, a primal, wordless, animal response to joy; and the language we use to speak and write can be considered a lame attempt to tame and translate it.

I know it’s pretty much impossible for me to effectively turn my memory of Grandma’s grizzly laugh into words, though I can clearly recall each of its aspects and implications. And while my lol is nowhere near as distinctive, there is something distinguished about it. If nothing else, it suggests I’ve been laughing a good long time. Not a bad way to be remembered.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at michael.brodeur@