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New Slang 💬

New Slang 💬
By Ernie Smith • Issue #192 • View online
Taking a quick look at the world’s greatest FOIA request, an 83-page document listing the FBI’s attempt at capturing the internet’s slang.
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ICBTLI: I can’t believe this list exists.
ICBTLI: I can’t believe this list exists.
I’m not a part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I don’t know what being an employee of that bureau would be like—whether it looks like the movies or it’s something more unusual and novel.
But what I do know is that the FBI has a crack slang research team when it comes to the internet. Back in 2014, the agency received a Freedom of Information Act request from Muckrock, asking for “a copy of all records or documentation available to FBI agents or other FBI personnel or contractors which provides information on how to interpret or understand so-called ‘leetspeak.’”
This request, which sounds amusing on its face, nonetheless hit up pay dirt in the form of an 83-page document listing “Twitter shorthand,” and while the document looks like total trash—what appears to have been screenshotted from an FBI intranet, then printed out on a dot-matrix printer, than scanned back in, then printed again from a web browser—it is nonetheless hilarious that such a document exists. (Now it’s on the Internet Archive, a discovery resurfaced by Input.)
There are a lot of examples of internet slang in here, including some popular favorites such as “YOLO” (you only live once), “TIL” (today I learned), and “TLDR” (too long, didn’t read, also an accurate description of what most people will do with this document). But the strange thing is that it seems to be absolutely loaded to the gills with slang examples that are extremely obscure at best and uncommon at worst, as if they didn’t understand their target audience.
The list at least seems to have its tongue firmly in cheek about the mission of the document. “This list has about 2800 entries you should find useful in your work or for keeping up with your children or grandchildren,” the document states.
I can’t help but imagine the discussion that went into building this list, which lists decidedly non-slang terms like SQL (a popular database technology) in the same breath as BTDTGTTSAWIO (“been there, done that, got the t-shirt and wore it out,” a phrase that basically only gets used on the internet when this list resurfaces). But it’s worth remembering that this was someone’s job—the Directorate of Intelligence’s Intelligence Research Support Unit, to be exact. And one presumes that the FBI didn’t know what, exactly, was going to become the next YOLO, so they cast a wide net, just in case an important piece of slang became their next important piece of intel.
Is this a decent FOIA request, or the world’s greatest FOIA request? I humbly submit that it might be the latter.
Related Reads:
Wordle’s Digital Predecessors: The Evolution of Online Word Games
OCR History: The Original Machine Learning
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If you like this, be sure to check out more of my writing at Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet.
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Ernie Smith

Hot takes in 30 minutes or less. A newsletter with an unforgiving deadline, written by Ernie Smith—who’s best known for another newsletter, Tedium.

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