Ever have friends who use insufferably cute terms — think “doggie-poo” — while talking about their Labradoodles?
Such language is stoic and reserved compared to doggo-speak (also called DoggoLingo). This internet-propelled, ultra-cutesy vocabulary — including words such as “pupper,” “woofer,” and “bork” — is catching on through social media and spreading through the lexicon like kennel cough in a dog park. Even some serious publications can’t resist these terms, as seen in a recent Popular Science headline: “New study asks how your favorite doggos came to be.”
More intriguing, though, is how doggo-speak came to be. It’s the intersection of canine enthusiasm with Internet meme culture — in which inside jokes and novelty vowel patterns appear out of nowhere, and quickly become ubiquitous.
Doggo-speak consists mainly of words for dogs (“floofs,” “fluffers,” “boofers,” “woofers,” “pupperinos”) and the faces and sounds they make (“blop,” “blep,” “mlem”). These terms have spread on social media accounts (such as @FluffSociety and @dog_rateson Twitter) and groups (such as Doggo Love and Dogspotting on Facebook). Doggo-speak appears in oodles of memes and hashtags, usually as captions for pictures of dogs, as in a tweet by @MissJazzDaFunk, featuring the tweeter and a dog: “Look at this heckin boofer I found.”
This lingo is a lexical mutt. As Jessica Boddy wrote in an in-depth NPR piece on doggo-speak, this vocabulary is “a hodgepodge of existing Internet language.” Such meme-propelled lingo and grammar (recalling lolcats and doge) is joined by Australian suffixation patterns (such as a preference for ending words with “-o”) and standard words for dogs in a furry blender.
Some of these terms are unremarkable. “Doggo” and “pupper” are straightforward variations of “doggy” and “puppy,” while “bork” is an alternative form of “bark.” “Mlem” is weirder, starting with a consonant combination that could have come from Klingon. But a weird spelling doesn’t indicate a lack of meaning. An Imgur blog post from 2015 makes a clear separation between “mlem” and another tongue-centric word, “blep.” “Mlem” is a conscious act of licking, while a “blep” — a tongue protruding from an animal’s mouth — just kind of happens. (To judge from the species-diverse photos on the Imgur post, it seems that cats, lizards, and other critters are now just as mlem-able as pooches.)
We’ve always put words in dogs’ mouths, but which ones will last? “Arf” and “woof” are successful words, but they’re just the tip of the dog-berg. The Oxford English Dictionary records many now-forgotten words for dog sounds, including “yaffle,” “yar,” “gnarr,” “blaff,” and “waff.” We’ll just have to see if “blep” and “mlem” join the successful words or the obscurities.
Predicting long-term word success is precarious, but Emily Brewster, associate editor for Merriam-Webster, gives it a shot: In an email, she cites the enduring qualities of “doggo” and “pupper.” Both capture a specific meaning and sentiment; both are “memorable and fun.” She was less optimistic about oddball “mlem.” “There’s simply less occasion for it to be used,” she says, “and therefore more likelihood of it falling by the lexical wayside.”
The cooing, gooey sentiment of doggo-speak is a departure from how dogs have traditionally been kenneled in the slang lexicon, which tends to revel in rebellion and obscenity rather than kisses and cuddles. As Jonathon Green, editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, wrote in an unpublished manuscript he was kind enough to share, “The dog (see also mutt, cur, pooch and similar less than flattering synonyms) stands among the counter-language’s most well-used animals. But it’s like some linguistic version of vivisection: nary a pat, nary a stroke or kind word.” Terms such as “dog’s breakfast” (a mess), “dog-faced” (ugly) and “dog’s meat” (anything worthless) all suggest a negative view of those precious pupperinos.
For some, that negative view extends to doggo-speak: Wacky, newfangled words, as usual, make some people feel as if language has, well, gone to the dogs. But it’s nothing new for the slang of some people to be misunderstood or dismissed by other people: that’s kind of the point. Criminal slang, which filled the first slang dictionaries, was meant to keep illicit activities concealed from big-eared bystanders. Teen slang is for teens, not baffled oldsters. Doggo-speak is likewise for doggo-speakers, spotters, and memers, giving them a common tongue, so to speak — a tongue best symbolized by a collective, dog-loving mlem.
Mark Peters, the Ideas language writer, is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon.” Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.