With 4.7 billion people worldwide on social media, these platforms have transformed our world – even the very language we use to communicate.
American English is a living language and changes quite often. You don't even have to look all the way back to Shakespeare or the King James Bible. Hundreds of changes have happened just in the last decade. Some come from new or emerging technologies. Some meanings change due to a shift in popular use.
In recent years, the biggest factor has been social media – leaving even native English speakers dumbfounded by the intricacies of their native tongue.
As of April 2022, 59 percent of the world's population, were social media users. Thanks to the significant amount of time children and young adults spend posting messages to social networks and chatting online, a new language or “lingo” has emerged that does not adhere to Standard Written English (SWE), according to the Journal of Literacy Research.
Formally known as digitalk, the “lingo” consists of many acronyms and abbreviations, which act as a shorthand way of communicating with our friends or members of our social media circle.
While some abbreviations are specific to certain social media platforms or groups of people, others have become more mainstream and are used across the Internet. Experts from the Wealth of Geeks network analyzed the Google search data for the phrase “What does … mean” to discover the most common social media abbreviations Americans wish were more defined.
Most Confusing Abbreviations
Most of us know standard abbreviations such as ASAP (as soon as possible), but things can quickly become confusing when faced with the more recent and Internet-specific ones. Here are ten of the most searched-for abbreviations from social media and what they mean.
The results consist of acronyms and initialisms. We've organized them from the most to the least confusing.
With an estimated 148,000 searches per month in the United States and 282,000 globally, SMH is one of the most confusing initialisms far and wide. SMH stands for “shaking my head” and expresses disbelief, disappointment, or frustration. For example, you might see someone tweet “SMH at the state of the world” after reading some bad news.
The next most searched abbreviation is SOS, with 79,000 monthly searches in the United States and 106,000 globally. SOS has been used since 1905 as a Morse code sequence. Many mistakenly believed it stood for “save our souls” or “save our ship,” but in reality, the letters don't stand for anything. It is recognized as an international abbreviation for distress.
Sitting at an estimated 73,000 searches per month is the acronym POV. If you are a film buff, you probably know that POV means “point of view.” In filmography, point-of-view shots refer to a scene in which the camera takes on its character's perspective. The acronym has been adapted to the video-sharing platform TikTok to express one's opinion on a particular topic.
For example, you might see a post that says, “POV you are at a party, and no one is talking to you,” and act out the scene from that perspective.
TBH garners approximately 67,000 monthly visits per month from the United States. TBH means “to be honest,” or less commonly, “to be heard,” and is used when expressing a viewpoint that the listener may or may not want to hear. TBH often acts as a preface to an unpopular or controversial statement someone will make.
ISTG is an initialism searched an estimated 57,000 times monthly in the United States. ISTG stands for “I swear to God,” It expresses the truthfulness of what someone is about to say. It may also express annoyance with someone or something. For example, you might see a post that says, “ISTG, I can't believe he just said that,” indicating that the person is both surprised and offended by what “he” said.
While Millenials may know ASL as Internet shorthand for “age sex location” in the past, Generation Z has decided to change that. With 51,000 monthly searches in the United States, people are asking, “what does ASL mean?” Generation Z uses the slang ASL to mean “as hell” or, in other words, to a great extent. It can be used to emphasize how good or bad something is. I feel old ASL reading this!
BBL is a growing trend on TikTok, short for “Brazilian butt lift.” With an estimated 49,000 monthly searches for the meaning, the 2-in-1 procedure involves a butt lift and liposuction. It is considered one of the most dangerous cosmetic surgeries to date. Back in the day, BBL more innocently meant “be back later.”
An abbreviation often used in text messages and direct messages (DMs), HMU stands for “hit me up.” With over 49,000 monthly searches, HMU is commonly used when someone wants to meet up or have someone contact them for information.
For example, you might see a social media post saying, “I'm going to the mall later, HMU if you want to come.”
OTP is an initialism that stands for “one true pair” or “one true pairing.” Searched approximately 48,000 times per month, it is commonly used in fandom communities to refer to a “ship” (itself short slang for relationship) you support. For example, you might see a post that says, “Harry and Meghan are my OTP.”
TTYL is an abbreviation that stands for “talk to you later.” It is used to sign off on a text or chat conversation. With over 33,000 monthly searches in the United States, TTYL is sometimes used in casual or friendly discussions.
Summary of The Results
According to the survey results, the top ten most searched abbreviations in the United States account for more than 625,000 searches monthly.
There were limitations to this survey. Instead of searching “what does … mean,” people may have searched “what does … stand for” or “… meaning,” which would have affected the results. For example, NFT would have made the list if we included the search term “what does … stand for.”
A spokesperson from Wealth of Geeks commented on the study, “It has been fascinating to explore the most popular abbreviations people are searching for online. While ‘SOS' has been around for some time, many abbreviations have only popped up in recent years, such as ‘ISTG' and ‘OTP.' It just goes to show how ever-changing and dynamic language can be.”
This study was conducted by TPR Teaching and the Wealth of Geeks network: language educators and editing experts giving clear and concise information on the English language.
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Caitriona is a private language tutor and founder of TPR Teaching. Caitriona has been teaching the English language since 2016. She has taught in schools in Spain and the U.K., and she currently teaches online. On her blog, you will find tons of English language articles, worksheets, resources, tips, and advice for learners and teachers.