I’m trying something new here on the blog. Today I’m looking at how words are born, and become part of the English language. I want to look at the creation and evolution of a word born on the Internet. Today’s word is #NAGL.
While this blog will always be about public relations advice for startups and small businesses, I want to talk about the evolution of language, since the language is the heart of public relations, marketing and storytelling.
What does NAGL mean?
NAGL is an acronym for “not a good look.” Isn’t NAGL and abbreviation? No. Read the difference between abbreviations and acronyms. When someone has “egg on their face,” another colloquialism, it’s not a good look. As a public relations professional it’s my job to help my clients avoid NAGL situations. When you find y or to deal with them the best way possible in crisis communications situations. I also thought it would be fun to do a little investigating.
Where does #NAGL originate?
The definitive entry for NAGL comes from the Urban Dictionary, and was published July 2009:
Used most frequently as a noun to describe anything unacceptable, foul, disastrous, inappropriate, or awkward. Originated in 2007 at Pace University in NYC; coined as a contraction of the full phrase after its repeated use of quoting a Pace staff member’s warning to students about returning to the dormitories intoxicated.
I like the author’s description, and historical context, but I dispute the characterization of NAGL as a noun. I think NAGL is an adjective. It describes an attribute of the person, as opposed to being a distinct entity on its own, which would make it a noun. Regardless, their description validates my theory that the term not a good look, from which NAGL originates, was spawned in New York City.
I first encountered the term, “not a good look” when I moved to New York City in 2005. I believe the term was spawned from another piece of New York City slang, “Good looking out,” which means, “Thanks for being thoughtful.” NAGL is the opposite of good looking out. In essence NAGL means, “You should know better.”
The origin on #NAGL on Twitter
men's blazers that stop at the waist? #nagl http://tinyurl.com/dmm24m
— jason (@jasonlalor) April 16, 2009
I’ve found what I believe is the first instance of the word #NAGL on Twitter using Twitter’s web-based search tool, search.twitter.com.
Just as it’s widely-believed that Chris Messina is the first person to use a hashtag on Twitter to organize information on Twitter, I believe Jason Lalor may be the first person to use #NAGL on Twitter. Today the word is principally used by young women to describe fashion disasters. See below:
was considering the mary haircut for a minute til i remembered the disaster of the earbob i had at 17 #closecall #somethingaboutmary #nagl
— Mary Dee (@cawcamilis) August 2, 2013
Fresh out the dumpster ew #nagl #gross pic.twitter.com/r1kiten9C9
— hannah (@krajuicyy) August 1, 2013
Doctors smoking. #NAGL
— carla lalli music (@lallimusic) June 18, 2013
It’s not uncommon–though not pervasive–to hear people say “hashtag,” in common speech. Young women play an important role as verbal trendsetters, as Douglas Quenqua recently wrote in The New York Times. Young women talking about fashion are the primary audience for NAGL today. And it’s the same on Instagram, but I predict it crossing into to popular usage in the next few years.
Why did I choose NAGL?
I also chose NAGL to be the first journalist to chronicle its emergence of the word. Let’s see how long it will take (of if it’s possible) to outrank Urban Dictionary.
This morning I did a search on Instagram and discovered there were fewer than 900 photos with the hashtag #NAGL. By contrast #YOLO (you only live once) has more than 9,142,000 associated photos. Instagram is the ideal place to chart the emergence of a linguistic phenomenon like NAGL, because it’s a visual communication and storytelling platform. We put our fantasy selves on Instagram to be viewed and judged by the world.
As Instagram grows, count on the number of NAGL posts growing rapidly.
A new era of language
One of the remarkable things about our era of human history is the ability to track the emergence of new memes in realtime. Dozens of companies have emerged offering the ability to monitor and analyze Twitter data, and sentiment across social media platforms.
These same platforms provide an historical context on the usage and spread of particular pieces of content. Bit.ly data scientist Hillary Mason showed slides of the real-time creation and diffusion of news about The Arab Spring At The Web 2.0 Expo I attended for VentureBeat in 2011. We leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs with everything we do online. Unknowingly we paint a very detailed picture of ourselves, which entrepreneurs can harness to serve our needs, but it also has great potential to be abused. For better or for worse, the breadcrumb trail enables precise tracking of content, memes, and the expression of ideas. Tracking the emergence of new words can be accomplished with a level of precision and detail never before possible.
Words often cross into the mainstream after becoming popular on Twitter, instant messaging services and social media platforms. FOMO, LOL, LMFAO, SMH, OMG and YOLO and hasghtag are examples of common acronyms or phrases used in digital communication that have crossed over into mainstream speech.
In praise of William Safire
In my Columbia Journalism School application I wrote that I aspired to follow in the footsteps of legendary New York Times columnist William Safire, who chronicled the evolution of the English language for decades. Safire wrote more than 4,000 articles on his ‘On Language’ column, diving into the history of such words as clunkers, zombie banks and pushback.
It should come as no surprise that I’m obsessed with language. As a journalist words are the tools of the trade. Language is how we all make meaning of our reality, and I’ve been in a fortunate position to get to study and use language as my occupation. One of my favorite graduate school projects was an investigation of slang terms in the South Bronx. I visited with the residents of two housing projects operated by the New York City Housing Authority, and learned that residents of apartment buildings across the street from one another used completely different slang terms. One fascinating word I uncovered was “goop,” an adjective which was being used to describe something embarrassing or inconvenient. Example: I can’t believe Thomas is wearing those ugly shoes today. Those shoes are goop. You would use goop would be used in a similar fashion to #NAGL.
Language tells a fascinating story about human evolution over time. Until recently we had no way to record human thought. The written word is a fairly new invention. But just as slang terms grow and develop today, it goes without question that linguistic evolution has always occurred.
Like this post? Stay tuned for more jargon junction! If you have a suggestion for a word, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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