Why does Ngram show an extreme spike in use of “LOL” in mid 1600s?

Why does Ngram show an extreme spike in use of “LOL” in mid 1600s?

In the google "Ngram" search, which allows you to search the usage of words in recent history, I typed in the widely-used internet word "LOL". To my surprise, this came up:

As you can see, there was a large usage of the word "lol" around 1810, even larger than the usage today. In addition, I set the time frame back all the way to 1500 AD, and this absolute unit came up: My question is, Does anybody know exactly why the usage of LOL was drastically boosted in the 1600s to the 1800s? Thanks!


In Ngram viewer, along the bottom you can find the actual books that contain the words. By following those links I came across The Changeling By Thomas Middleton, William Rowley whose text looks like this:

So there you have it. "Lol" is a contraction of "Lollio", which looks like a character's name in this book.

In general, I would be extremely wary about Ngram results for

  • Huge timeframes
  • Where language usage, and the language itself, has changed drastically over time
  • Results far into the past, where the corpus size is much smaller and easily affected by a single text
  • Looking for words that didn't exist during a time period

Congusbongus's answer is very good, and points out that you can find the actual books that contribute to the spike: link. I think "higher prevalence of OCR errors, and very low sample population" is a solid hypothesis.

I noticed one more phenomenon of pre-1800 English text that could contribute to this particular OCR error. See, "lol" has two "l"s, and pre-1800 English text has a statistically very high number of "l"s when run through OCR… because of the long s. I see at least two cases of Google reading "lol" in the middle of a word that actually contains "loſ" with an S:

Here, in the middle of a pretty good OCR, Google reads "loſt his horſe" as "lol't his horfe."

Here, grasping at straws, Google reads "cloſe" as "C'lOl'i.'"

But Google also reads "lol" in a couple of places for "fol." (meaning "folio") and for "for." Maybe there's something about these old typefaces that makes their "f"s as well as their "ſ"s look like "l"s.


Graham's theory of "lol" being commonly found in "Fol lol" and "Tol lol lay," while not directly relevant to your 1500-1700 search, is certainly borne out by the next century's worth of ngram results!


In addition to the previous answer…

"Lol" is a nonsense syllable frequently used in mouth music. Other similar syllables are "fa", "la", "fiddle", "diddle", and so on - think of the song Deck the halls, for example, or Whack-fol-de-diddle from the Dubliners. This has always been a staple of English folk music. More recently, scat singing uses the same principle in jazz. The concept is the same though - the nonsense syllables are chosen for their sustained and/or plosive qualities to fit the meter of the song.

In the 16th century, madrigals spawned a new genre called balletto which featured this as a standard part of the form, and this coincided with the widespread availability of printing. It is not inconceivable that transcriptions of broadsheet songs would skew the statistics for these mouth music "words".


"To my surprise, this came up"

Why, you don't honestly believe it was an acronym for laughs out loud in 1800 do you?

You should give a little thought to the idea that what you've searched there includes real words as well as acronyms with completely different meanings that just happen to be spelled the same.

An old or alternative (or just lazy) spelling of loll seems the most likely cause of those statistics to me.

meaning to "sit, lie, or stand in a lazy, relaxed way."

Words don't just fall in & out of favor with time, they change, old words disappear, new words appear & something spelled the same way in 1500 as a word in 2018 may have absolutely nothing to do with the current word either in it's usage & meaning or the etymology of its origins.

Your results from 1500 are pretty pointless in this instance & certainly don't point to the use of lol as an acronym for laughs out loud in that century that you seem to be wondering about.


The Great Plagues

The great role of pathogens in human affairs is one of those things that had largely been forgotten, at least by the general public. In the West, it has been a couple of generations since a pestilence gave us a good scare. The Hong Kong flu was the last time people really worried about the invisible death. Even that was pretty mild, compared to past pandemics. You have to go back to the 1950’s to find an invisible killer that got the attention of the public. That’s almost three generations ago.

The fact is though, the invisible killer has been a part of the human story since there has been a human story. People suddenly coming down with some unknown ailment and dying in volume is as much of the human story as anything. A fair bit of our superstitions have probably been driven by such events. If you cannot come up with a natural explanation to events, you come up with a supernatural explanation. That fear of the supernatural got constant exercise throughout human history.

That may be what we are seeing with The Great Madness. It is that old fear of the unknown, not exercised for several generations, suddenly being turned on by the threat of the Chines flu. In the past, people knew how to control this fear and rulers knew the danger of succumbing to it. Modern people are now like teenagers discovering the opposite sex. Our fear hormones are in overdrive and we have no ability to control and channel them. Hence the great panic we see today.

There’s also the fact that we have conquered nature, for the most part. Even things like hurricanes and earthquakes are not much of a threat. Sure, a hurricane can knockout New Orleans, but everyone understands what was really going on there. That disaster was due to man not respecting that nature does distribute her gifts equally. Natural disasters may knock down some buildings, but they are quickly rebuilt. Increasingly, our buildings are resistant to the best Mother Nature can throw at us.

Even when it comes to pestilence, humans have been taking the fight to Mother Nature in a big way. We are probably a generation away from conquering diseases like cancer, at least the most common forms. Genetics could very well allow us to overcome lots of other natural disorders that shorten our lifespans and diminish our lives. The lack of great plagues seems like proof that the days of such things are numbered. Maybe this virus is a reminder that Mother Nature has plenty of fight left in her.

That said, this pandemic is a piker compared to the past. The Swine flu, which hardly anyone remembers, despite happening just a decade ago, had twice the body count of the Chinese flu in the United States. There’s still time, but in the grand scheme of things, this pandemic is never going to be on the list of great plagues. The best chance of it being remembered is if the economic fallout is such that people remember for generations that we tried shutting down the world over a virus.

That’s probably the most interesting aspect of pandemics. They often leave their mark in how they shape human events. How different would our world be if Athens never suffered a plague and went on to defeat the Peloponnesian League? How about if Justinian was able to reconstitute the Roman Empire? It’s impossible to know, but most likely we are what we are because of these plagues. They not only alter the timeline, but they cull the herd in ways that are felt for many generations.

This week I have the usual variety of items in the now standard format. Spreaker has the full show. I am up on Google Play now, so the Android commies can take me along when out disrespecting the country. I am on iTunes, which means the Apple Nazis can listen to me on their Hitler phones. The anarchists can catch me on iHeart Radio. I am now on Deezer, for our European haters and Stitcher for the weirdos. YouTube also has the full podcast. Of course, there is a download link below.

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This Week’s Show

  • 00:00: Opening
  • 02:00: The Plague Of Athens
  • 12:00: The Antonine Plague
  • 22:00: Plague of Justinian
  • 32:00: The Black Death
  • 42:00: Modern Pandemics
  • 57:00: Closing

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The best psychology books of 2013

It’s the season for Christmas book lists and we’ve trawled through them, looking for the psychology-themed tomes earning a recommendation. Here are ten suggestions, in no particular order:

1. The best non-fiction book of the year as voted by readers at GoodReads was The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek. „Temple Grandin reports from the forefront of autism science, bringing her singular perspective to a thrilling journey into the heart of the autism revolution.”

2. On Slate’s list of the 10 most crucial books of 2013 was Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. „Love it or hate it,” said Slate, „Sandberg and her book will forever be a founding document for a generation of career women who found in its pages advice, sympathy, understanding, provocation—or just a way to start the discussion they’ve been needing to have for years.”

3. The winner of the British Psychological Society’s 2013 Book Award in the popular category was Claudia Hammond’s Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception.

4. Barnes and Noble listed Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath among the year’s best new non-fiction. „As usual, his research covers a vast terrain” said the Barnes and Noble editors, „in this case, from Cold War battlefields to the minutiae of microscopic cancer research and as usual, his findings [in this case about the effects of obstacles and challenges] are as telling as they are surprising. David and Goliath reminds us again that with the proper guide, almost everything can be seen anew.” (not everyone was so impressed).

5. New Scientist chose The Anatomy of Violence: The biological roots of crime by Adrian Raine as one of their favourite science books of 2013. „Apparently, heart rate is a good predictor of criminal tendencies. More about this and other telltale signs from criminologist Adrian Raine as he builds a case that violent criminals differ biologically from the rest of humanity.”

6. Foyles of London lists Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed among its science recommendations for Christmas. „Cat Sense offers us for the first time a true picture of one of humanity’s closest and most enigmatic companions.”

7. For The Guardian, Lisa Appignanesi chose psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life as among the best psychology books of 2013. She describes it as „a finely honed rendition in some 30 vignettes of what passes in his consulting room.” (check out her other choices, including Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump and Giovanni Frazzetto’s How We Feel).

8. Brain Pickings has published a list of the 13 best psychology and philosophy books of the year, including Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova: „an effort to reverse-engineer Holmes’s methodology into actionable insights that help develop ‘habits of thought that will allow you to engage mindfully with yourself and your world as a matter of course.'”

9. James McConnachie for the Sunday Times listed The Society of Timid Souls: Or, How to Be Brave by Polly Morland among his pick of the best „thought” books of the year. „… hugely thought-provoking account of encounters with the brave and the formerly frightened: big-wave surfers, armed robbers, firefighters, maimed soldiers and neurotic orchestral musicians. It is a work that feels entertaining, rather than profound, but keeps niggling away afterwards.”

10. And the Digest editor’s own recommendation: The Happy City by Charles Montgomery. The fascinating psychology and neuroscience of how we’re affected by urban design.

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