Explained: What Modi meant by ‘FOMO’ — and other Internet shorthand and how to pick them up

This week, the popular Internet slang ‘FOMO’, short for “fear of missing out”, was employed by an unlikely speaker: India’s Prime Minister.

Narendra Modi was giving a joint address with Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to the India-Denmark Business Forum on the sidelines of the second India-Nordic Summit in Copenhagen. The official handle of the Prime Minister’s Office tweeted: “These days the term FOMO or ‘fear of missing out’ is gaining traction on social media. Looking at India’s reforms and investment opportunities, I can say that those who don’t invest in our nation will certainly miss out: PM @narendramodi in Copenhagen.”

What is ‘FOMO’?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes ‘FOMO’ as the “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on social media”.

In their 2021 research paper ‘Fear of missing out: A brief overview of origin, theoretical underpinnings and relationship with mental health’, authors Mayank Gupta and Aditya Sharma wrote that “FoMO is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.”

Although the phenomenon of the ‘fear of missing out’ was identified some time in the late 1990s by a brand strategist named Dan Herman, the expression was popularised only in 2004 by Patrick J. McGinnis, an American venture capitalist.

In their 2016 article titled ‘Fear of missing out, need for touch, anxiety and depression are related to problematic smartphone use’,
Jon D Elhai, Jason C Levine, Robert D Dvorak, and Brian J Hall highlighted that “problematic smartphone use was most related to the fear of missing out, depression (inversely), and a need for touch”.

Gupta and Sharma wrote that “The social aspect of FoMO could be postulated as relatedness which refers to the need to belong, and formation of strong and stable interpersonal relationships.”

And what is meant by ‘Internet slang’?

Since it first originated in the Internet’s early days, Internet slang or Internet shorthand has been developing constantly and rapidly. With time, the occurrence of these words and expressions in the vocabulary, especially of users who spend significant time on social networking services and similar online platforms, has become more frequent. And as our digital lives and personalities have become increasingly more enmeshed with real ones, this language of the Internet has seeped into everyday speech.

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A BBC report from 2015 traced the origins of one of the earliest Internet slangs to the mid-1980s when a developer in Canada claimed that he had used “LOL” in a chat room. “Laughing out loud” is one of the most commonly used and easily recognisable Internet slang words, and it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011.

So are “BTW” (‘by the way’), “TFW” (‘that feeling when’), and “CUL8R” (‘see you later’), the last being more common during the early days of SMS.

Punctuation marks play an important role in the language of Internet slang: common punctuation marks used to express feelings or emotions include, for example, a string of full stops (‘…….’) and a series of exclamation marks (‘!!!!!!!!!!’), as well as a combination of question marks and exclamation marks (‘?!?!?!?!’).

In 2014, following a Freedom of Information request, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) published an 80-page list of Internet slang words that it had compiled to help the agency’s agents navigate the fast-changing world of Internetspeak. But a Fast Company report published earlier this year indicated that the list had become largely irrelevant, an indication of how quickly the language develops.

It is often not so much the creation of new words as it is the appropriation of existing words and phrases, which are given new identities and meanings on the Internet. Researchers have submitted that the development of earlier technologies such as radio, television, and telephone too engendered their own set of slang. An example: the phrase “the pilot radioed the control room” produced the verb “radioed” that originated in the technology itself.

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How can you pick up Internet slang?

You have to spend a lot of time on the Internet, of course, and you have to be, as active social media users say, “ITK”, or ‘in the know’. New words first become cool in certain spaces, and having a wide trawling sweep helps, as does a circle of users who are ‘with it’ on the Internet. New expressions and connotations keep emerging, with older ones becoming ‘uncool’.

For those who are starting out, Kaspersky has a helpful beginners guide to Internet slang. Another resource that is being constantly updated is Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary specifically to help decode slang words and phrases.

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