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In doing some research on another question I bumped into the term "hedge":

A hedge is a mitigating device used to lessen the impact of an utterance. Typically, they are adjectives or adverbs, but can also consist of clauses. It could be regarded as a form of euphemism.

I commonly see "lol" online but recently I have noticed it used as such:

I completely forgot about our meeting... lol.

I am completely embarrassed, lol.

Oh wow I was a complete retard will you forgive me lol

The final example could use some punctuation but these uses seem different than the original use of lol. It seems to signal an embarrassment or defensiveness in an attempt to (a) avoid conflict (b) claim no hard feelings (c) lighten the mood or (d) something else?

In any case, while I am curious about this usage in general I am more specifically asking about its classification. Is this considered a hedge? Or am I not understanding this term correctly?

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It's used more this way than literally, in my experience. –  Matthew Read May 10 '11 at 14:19
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LOL is used in two meanings: laugh out loud and lots of love, and if I was sent the third of your messages then I would read it as "lots of love". –  Henry May 10 '11 at 14:22
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@Henry Where are you from? While I've heard of the second usage, I've never encountered it, and have seen people say things like the third message and intended the "laugh" version. –  Matthew Read May 10 '11 at 14:28
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I have never heard of anyone interpreting LOL as "lots of love", but I suppose it's possible that some people do. –  Viktor Haag May 10 '11 at 14:36
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@Henry: I think anyone who uses lol to mean lots-of-love nowadays is going to be misinterpreted virtually every time. But they may never realise that lol –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 16:16

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

This link might just be an undergraduate's work, but it has the benefit of being reasonably accessible to non-specialists looking for a definition. This one is more technical, to say the least.

It's important to note that there's no real consensus among professional linguists about what exactly constitutes a hedge. And there's much confusion on the internet about who coined the term anyway. It was actually George Lakoff in 1973, but Google mostly shows stuff from Robin Lakoff. She looks more like a feminist than a linguist to me, and I suspect she co-opted the term for her specific agenda.

G. Lakoff's coinage metaphorically refered to 'boundary' words between two identifiable 'structural' elements in an utterance. Semantically they might mitigate, amplify, or be neutral. The important thing is they're not really identifiable 'syntactic elements' in standard textual analysis terms.

Connotations with the verb to hedge, in the sense of speak evasively, steer one towards the Wikipedia interpretation. But I don't think that was ever intended (by George, disregarding Robin), and it may even be unhelpful.

I really think we should be careful about accepting Wikipedia's definition of hedge in this sense. Not least because several of their pages in this general area are flagged as being below standard.

TL;DR - don't get too hung up on whether something is a hedge or not. Even the professionals don't agree.

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If we were to go with G. Lakoff's definition, I assume "lol" doesn't match because it appears at the end of the sentence? –  MrHen May 10 '11 at 18:10
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@MrHen: If we discount Robin Lakoff's 'pop-linguist' usage, I'm not sure 'lol' is a hedge in the first place. But I certainly wouldn't exclude it just because it appears at the end of the sentence, notwithstanding my summary definition above. You can easily classify the terminating period as a structural 'element'. And if you know computers you'll know of the notional 'EOF' beyond the end of a data file, so you could assume a notional 'beyond end of sentence' element for this purpose too. –  FumbleFingers May 10 '11 at 18:44

My understanding behind hedges is that they have to do with word choice. Emoticons and fragments seem to me a way to textually convey tone as a substitute for facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and so on -- they're not textual, they're sub-textual, elements.

If you're willing to think of an "ironic or sarcastic grin" as a hedge, then there's no reason you can't consider "lol" as a hedge.

If you want to think of hedges as textual elements only, then I'd say "lol" and smileys are not hedges, strictly speaking.

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But 'lol' and emoticons are textual elements, right? I don't disagree with your intention, that such things are outside of 'real' text, but I'm not sure the labeling works. –  Mitch May 10 '11 at 15:42
    
I agree that "lol" is often used as a tag before and after sentences to convey tone. But this is a usage I most often see in casual text conversations. I see the emoticon use in the office much more frequently, and it seems to be used more as what the OP describes as a hedge. –  D e v v i n May 10 '11 at 15:58
    
If you accept the Wikipedia definition of hedge then I guess "lol" can be a hedge, in that the addition of this extra element can 'soften' the meaning of what came before it. Mostly though, it's akin to an interjection. –  FumbleFingers May 11 '11 at 2:55
    
@Mitch -- yes, my wording is unfortunate. What I meant to convey is that smileys and fragments like lol (rotfl, and so on) aren't so much meant to affect the direct meaning of the statement, they're meant to convey (in a textual way) the tone that face-to-face speakers would receive through non-textual means (body language and so on). If people consider these "sub-text" aspects of communication to function as hedges, then I think "yes, lol is a hedge"; but when I've encountered the term in the past, it's been limited to word-choice (like euphemisms and such). –  Viktor Haag May 11 '11 at 13:52

Semantically, yes. Linguistically, no.

In your examples, "LOL" funtions like a hedge--in the sense of its meaning and use in context. However, "LOL" is not linguistically a hedge, because it does not have the properties that lexemes called "hedges" have.

Think of "hedging" language in the sense of the idiom "[to] hedge [one's] bets" --undoubtedly the source of the linguistic label. The English idiom derives from the concept of a (literal) hedge, which adds, in a garden, a substantial but incomplete measure of protection. Similarly, "hedge" language deliberately tempers and restricts the extent/boldness of an author's claims, without stifling them altogether.

--The key here is deliberately. A linguistic hedge--strictly understood--is a lexeme which deliberately weakens or constrains a statement. For example:

  • "sort of"

  • "I think"

  • "I feel"

  • "in my opinion"

  • "It seems"

  • "It may be"

  • "approximately"

  • "presumably"

  • "sometimes"

  • "It strikes me that"

  • "almost as though"

  • "possibly"

The common denominator of these expressions is that their meaning "implicitly involves fuzziness" (Lakoff, 1972). That is, even reading these words outside of context, we can see that they smack of a certain "cautious," "reserved," or "tentative" quality. They express "limitation": they aspire to constrain the extent or power of a statement. (Read the list again, and you will notice that all these words have this quality. Indeed, check any Pragmatics textbook, and I guarantee you that all their examples of linguistic "hedges" will have this quality, too.) Note also that the quality is inherent in these words.

This is what it means for a particular lexeme to be a hedge--provided, of course, that its function in context is also one of hedging. The "LOL" in your example does do the latter, but it does not meet the lexical criteria for a hedge, because it has no inherent sense of fuzziness. Therefore, strictly speaking, it is not a hedge.

...And we must indeed call it not a hedge. But I think it would be fair to call it "hedging language" (a term which somehow seems a bit more modest, more 'hedged' to me!) in light of its semantic function, which is consistent with hedging.

(As for why such a fine-grained distinction is important--"The semantic operation of hedging can be achieved in indefinite surface forms" [Brown/Levinson 1978]. This means that infinite numbers of verbal and non-verbal acts--including "LOL" and far beyond--can have the hedging function in particular contexts. But in order to get a maximum of use value out of the strict label "hedge" within the context of linguistics, we use it to refer specifically to that defined class of lexical operators that all make meaning in the same particular way. Since "LOL" does not do so, it is not a hedge in this rigorous sense.)

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