Cracking the code

By Kim Ode

Screenshot of chatslang.com Photo / File
Screenshot of chatslang.com Photo / File

Thanks to a new website deciphering emoticons and slang, we can now all read our texts and emails without having to consult a teenager, writes Kim Ode.

Emoticons - those jumbles of punctuation in an email or text message - might leave you scratching your head and feeling :-S .

Decoding them can be exercise in :-P .

Sometimes, it makes you want to break down and :'( .

For those moments, there is ChatSlang.com, a dictionary of sorts for emoticons, as well as chat slang, in which a few letters or numbers can convey far more than a simple FYI.

Per Christensson of Edina, Minnesota, started the site five years ago. While noting that there were similar sites, he said the parents' checklist was especially useful for a mum or dad wondering if C9 was a new way of saying goodbye, given their kid's electronic conversations always seem to end when that's typed. (Hel-lo. C9 means "parent in room".) ChatSlang emerged from Christensson's work with his other website, TechTerms.com, a dictionary of computer and technology terms from Archie to Zone File.

People were using abbreviations that he, at 31, struggled to understand.

His puzzlement raises the question of how quickly a new term becomes universally understood, at least among a texter's peers. "The younger generation picks up on things more quickly," he said. "But the whole reason we run this website is because people don't know."

As far back as 1857, Morse code operators used the number 73 to express "love and kisses". The satirical magazine, Puck, included typographical emoticons in 1881, but they never really caught on.

Then in 1982, Scott Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, became the first person documented to have used punctuation to suggest emotion, according to accounts by the school. Fahlman typed :-) and :-( to convey happy and sad feelings.

Yet even those symbols languished until texting took off and texters wanted to convey intent, Christensson said. "That's where emoticons are extremely useful, as funny as they are, or as unprofessional as they can be," he said. "If you're being sarcastic, you add a smiley face so people know you're joking and not being a jerk."

ChatSlang's entries come from submissions and Christensson's own view of the tech world. He also runs a third site, FileInfo.com, a database of "file extensions with detailed information about the associated file types".

In English? When you get one of those files that won't open, it offers other options to make it work. That site, he said, gets tens of thousands of hits daily.

Christensson hesitates to call abbreviations or emoticons a language, "but then, I'm not some teenager texting all the time," he said. "I'm actually kind of a stickler for grammar, so it's ironic that I run a chat slang website."

Still, he owns up to typing lmk without thinking twice, meaning "let me know."

"A friend of mine saw it on the site and told me he'd never known what I meant by that, and I'm like, 'You're kidding me.' I mean, based on context alone ... But it shows that you can never assume you are being understood."

ChatSlang.com has released an iPhone app so you can find out what someone has texted you, in case you're stumped.

Of course, figuring out the meaning on your own can leave you feeling ^ - ^.

You might reward yourself by taking a nice long ~,~.

- AAP

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