ICYMI, in Case You Missed It

By Mark Nichol

Apparently, I missed it: Ten years ago, the initialism ICYMI entered the social media lexicon by way of Twitter. Like BTW, IMO, IIRC, and others, it’s employed as an entrée to a discussion; ICYMI signals to you that the writer is going to provide context by referring to something you may not have read or heard about before. But I wasn’t aware of the initialism itself until I recently stumbled across it in an online article.

I’ve somehow managed to get by without using it and most other examples of online shorthand, including two of the earliest specimens of the form: LOL and ROTFL (and the latter’s more effusive variation, ROTFLMAO). That’s because I’m not a twit—er, not a Twitter user—and I don’t use LOL-speak in text or email messages. But many people do lean heavily on such usage, though some of these condensed expressions, like ICYMI, are less prevalent than others.

That means IAS: It’s a shibboleth. ICYDK, a shibboleth (in its original sense) is a word whose pronunciation by someone marks that person as an insider or an outsider; by extension, one’s very use of the word identifies one’s place within or outside of a social group. BTW, the meaning has also loosened up to refer to any behavior or custom that may, intentionally or otherwise, serve this function. (IIRC, the use of this odd-looking, odd-sounding word, which refers to the part of a plant from which grain grows, stems from a biblical tale of how one Hebrew tribe distinguished members of another tribe by how members of the latter group pronounced it differently than the members of the first tribe.)

Our culture is replete with shibboleths, from slang and jargon to modes of dress and other visual cues about one’s self-identification (and one’s desire to belong). Initialisms that serve as abbreviations for standard phrases are part of the game: If you use them, you assume that the recipients of your written communication know what they mean. Anyone who doesn’t is L7 and either doesn’t belong on your blog or had better step up their game if they want to hang with the cool kids.

That’s the danger of using language that is obtusely insular: Do you really want to exclude readers who may need a little hand-holding? If you’re a publisher, whether of a quirky little blog or of a book publishing company of international scope, that’s a choice you make—a choice that will affect the future of your enterprise. So, when you write, or commission others to write for you, consciously make a choice about how inclusive or exclusive the writing style is.

I readily admit that I had to look up ICYMI (“in case you missed it,” in case you missed it). And though I was already familiar with many such initialisms, it’s not the only one I was unacquainted with before I checked out an online glossary of terms of this type. So, in a hand-holding spirit, here are translations of the other initialisms I have used in this post:

BTW: by the way
ICYDK: in case you didn’t know
IIRC: if I recall/remember correctly
IMO: in my opinion (IMHO—“in my humble opinion”—is a variation)
LOL: laugh out loud
ROTFL(MAO): roll on the floor laughing (my ass off)

L7, BTW, predates the Internet: It represents the thumb and forefinger of each hand extended at a 90-degree angle (as if to simulate a gun) and held fingertip to fingertip with one hand reversed to form a rough square. An L7 is, therefore, a square, or a conventional or uncool person.

This post by a fellow DailyWritingTips.com contributor lists some of the many other Internet initialisms. (An initialism, FWIW, is an abbreviation that, unlike an acronym, is pronounced as a series of letters, not as a word.)

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1 Response to “ICYMI, in Case You Missed It”

  • Jim Porter

    I vowed a long time ago to use good English when writing e-mails, phone texts, or other messages that may or may not be esoteric to me. I am not, after all, a spy or drug-dealer that I should need to use such devices.

    I took my very first computer course back in the days of punch cards, before there was such a thing as direct computer input. (You took a stack of cards and punched in code to program your computer system. To get various results, you had different machines to help you use those cards.) If I recall correctly, the initialisms you cite came from that era, because simply to have the words “if I recall correctly” appear on a print out could use up precious punch cards and card space. Personal messages or asides could well require additional effort or punch cards.

    To demonstrate this fact, our computer instructor once wrote out the computer instructions to program an olde tyme computer to print out the words, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” The sentence required dozens of cards. Then he wrote the sentence this way: “The quick, brown fox: it jumped over a lazy dog.” The additional comma and colon required subroutines because a punctuation mark probably made the computer do something else entirely. (Stop printing, for example, or jump the machine into a completely different mode.)

    I once read a story about a woman and her husband who lived in Orange County, CA, who had NASA contracts to type (on typewriters) the hundreds or thousands of pages required for JPL and other aerospace companies. They went through dozens or hundreds of female employees who each year because of the pressures of getting those typed pages absolutely correct. A misplaced punctuation mark or letter could well have caused a manned spacecraft to explode because a valve opened too soon or an electrical system shut down because of the misplaced character. They were only able to stay in business a few years because they could not stand the pressure of being directly responsible for lives and the correct functioning of millions of dollars worth of equipment. After awhile, they sold the business.

    So, in those days, personal comments or insertions were done briefly to keep the amount of personal or extraneousness asides to a minimum. Hence, the abbreviations and initialisms without punctuation appeared in side notes or comment areas.

    It was a tedious time to learn and write computer.

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