Internet Slang and Abbreviations in English

by | Nov 27, 2023 | Cool & Fun, Idioms & Expressions

Based? Yeet? HMU? If you’ve surfed the English internet for even a minute, the chances are that you came across an expression like one of these. Neologisms are newly coined words and abbreviations, and are a standard part of language evolution. The internet, as it were, acts as a petri dish for language change—facilitating and accelerating the production and spread of new words. Where this was a slow process historically, a new word can enter hundreds of thousands of people’s vocabularies in a matter of days since appearing, very often in memes.

A great deal of today’s neologisms come from the minds of millennials and zoomers (that’s a neologism for generation Z), but many proliferate into the older ranks. Some are even included in respected dictionaries like the Oxford and Cambridge. Not everyone is happy about this, but criticism of slang has existed since time immemorial—just take this example from the Kamakura period in Japan:

“Modern fashions seem to keep on growing more and more debased … The ordinary spoken language has also steadily coarsened. People used to say ‘raise the carriage shafts’ or ‘trim the lamp wick,’ but people today say ‘raise it’ or ‘trim it.’ When they should say, ‘Let the men of the palace staff stand forth!’ they say, ‘Torches! Let’s have some light!’” from Tsurezuregusa by Yoshida Kenkō (1330-1332)

Understanding neologisms in the 80s

Yet neologisms should be celebrated! Several words that are completely taken for granted were created by individual writers: scientist (William Whewell, 1840), chortle (Lewis Carroll, 1855), and factoid (Norman Mailer, 1973). So without further ado, why don’t we take a look at a few of the most common neologisms of the last few years.

I started the article with based, an adjective often paired with its counterpart cringe. The former simply means “good”, “cool”, or “morally sound”, where the latter stands for the opposite, especially if it refers to something that actually makes you cringe, in other words recoil from second-hand embarrassment or disgust. Cringey means the exact same, but the shortened form is far more popular at the moment.

Understanding neologisms in the 80s

The meme format that popularized “based” and “cringe”—it’s pretty self-explanatory.

The second word I opened with, yeet, has been popping up in videos from an astrophysics YouTube channel, PBS Space Time, so you know we’re not messing around. The presenter was talking about hypothetical spacecraft being yeeted across the galaxy at near-lightspeed—“thrown”, “catapulted”, “flung” by their implausible engines. You can yeet a ball, you can yeet yourself, and a car can yeet down a road. It can also be used paralinguistically (as a sound effect), typically while throwing, jumping, sprinting, kicking, or pushing. Let’s use it in context:

Daniel: “Hey, Lerato, it was great seeing you at the concert last night. What a show, huh?”

Lerato: “Yeah! It was so crazy when the lead yeeted her guitar off the stage.”

Daniel: “I know, right? It’s a shame you weren’t at the after party, it was pretty lit. You should have seen Jason’s drip!”

Lerato: “Wait, what’s the tea about Jason and Angie? Are they still together? Come on, spill.”

In the conversation above we saw yeet being used, but also a couple of other terms familiar to the internet’s denizens: lit, drip, tea, and spill.

Daniel clearly enjoyed the party after the concert, given his wish for his friend Lerato to have been there. We can surmise then that lit must have a positive meaning, and indeed, where based means “cool”, “good”, or “morally upstanding”, lit also means “cool” but in a more exciting way. Think of lit as in its origin, the past tense of light: “the fire has been lit” or “they lit the fireworks and it was spectacular”; both fire and fireworks are bright, lively, thrilling, and colourful. Therefore, if a party is lit, those are the qualities you should associate with it.

Daniel then goes on to mention Jason’s drip, which simply means his really fashionable or stylish clothes. You’ll often see the words swag and fit be used in much the same way. But Lerato is more interested in Jason’s relationship with Angie than his outfit, in particular the tea. The phrase spilling the tea means divulging gossip, the tea being the sensational story itself. Spilling tea might not always be the based thing to do, just keep that in mind.

The only thing neither Daniel nor Lerato failed to mention is that the music at the concert absolutely slapped! This is to say it was awesome. Although it’s mainly music that slaps, many other things can too: you could say that your tasty hamburger slaps, or your friend’s outfit—they’ll know what you mean.

On the internet, however, meaning can’t always be inferred from what is said, but rather how. Take the two following versions of the same sentence:

  • Spill the tea!
  • sPiLl ThE tEa!

The first, as we well know, is a simple request for juicy gossip; the second, with its alternating upper and lower case letters, is a sarcastic jab at whoever is making the request. When you see phrases stylized in such a way, know that they are meant sarcastically or ridiculing.

A similar form of emphasis is created by spacing the letters out: b a s e d

This doesn’t necessarily denote anything good or bad. In many instances it’s equivalent to saying “very”, as in “very based”, and other times it just frames what’s said as humorous or tongue-in-cheek.

A similar form of emphasis is created by spacing the letters out - b a s e d

The “sarcastic SpongeBob” meme is thought to be the origin of tHiS way of writing.

Many internet neologisms can be pretty easy to figure out given enough context, but it’s a different story when it comes to abbreviations. By now everyone should know that lol means “laugh out loud”, it’s one of the first terms that comes to mind when thinking about internet slang. Lol itself has counterparts in rofl (“rolling on the floor laughing) and lmao (“laughing my ass off), but these are certainly not the only abbreviations lurking on the web. Below is a handy guide to some of the most common ones you’ll encounter:

hmu: “hit me up” — asking someone to let you know when they’re free to chat or hang out; asking someone to say hello.

ttyl: “talk to you later”

brb: “be right back”

til: “today I learned” — commonly followed by an interesting fact.

fyi: “for your information” — typically used in rebuttal and often read as rude or aggressive.

ftw: “for the win” — an exclamation of success or excitement; I’ll post “Springboks ftw” before OR after my favourite rugby team wins.

lmk: “let me know”

btw: “by the way”

tbh: “to be honest”

omg: “oh my god!” — used to express surprise or excitement.

tldr: “too long, didn’t read” — also styled as tl;dr. This can be used to tell someone that their post is too long for you to be interested in reading, or it can be used by someone who made a long post to introduce a very brief summary at the end indeed for those who don’t want to spend more than a few seconds reading.

idk: “I don’t know”

np: “no problem”

op: “original poster” — found in comment sections and message boards, this is a pronoun used to refer to the particular post’s author. Among gamers op can also mean “over-powered”, referring to a character or weapon that’s far too strong and needs to be nerfed, or “weakened”.

The internet has a language and culture all of its own, a lot of which is based in English. Even for native English speakers this can make getting around cyberspace a little tricky, even more so for non-native speakers. Hopefully this little roadmap will be of help next time you’re surfing the WWW (that’s world wide web, an antiquated term by today’s standards).

Johann Potgieter

This article was written by Break Into English’s online teacher and blog contributor Johann Potgieter.