Lots of times, text messages I see contain letter combinations that mean nothing to me. I’ve learned some of the basics of this coded communication, but much of it is beyond the beyond, as an interior decorator friend would say.

For instance, I now know “lol” means “laugh out loud,” although at first I thought it was short for lollygag, which means aimless dithering. It’s a terrific word — from time to time, I suspect the kids of it — so I was disappointed that the children had foreshortened it so clumsily that it was no longer fun to see or say. Live and learn.

I find myself exposed to more and more of this moronic code — forgive me, it slipped out — in the comment posts to articles I read, so I consulted an expert in all things techno. He shook his hoodied head indulgently and referred me to the Urban Dictionary, which naturally lives online. Urban Dictionary describes itself as “the dictionary you wrote. Define your world, 5,688,030 definitions since 1999.”

I’m sure that the “you” they refer to is not me and that whoever it is, he or she or they are a lot younger. Of course, the Urban Dictionary is more than a dictionary. You can buy tee-shirts. The legend on one popular one is “Anything unrelated to elephants is irrelephant.” Well, that may be a teeny bit clever.

You can also record your thumbs up or thumbs down to a new phrase that’s really caught on, “Safe sexting,” defined as a mechanism to keep racy pictures away from folks who wouldn’t understand, for instance your friends, parents, or girlfriends distinct from the one you are texting.  I would have guessed that the only safe sext was one you never sent, but I would have been wrong.

Anyhow, the thumbs are about evenly divided on the wisdom of this practice, or perhaps on the usefulness of the phrase in their daily lives. I’m not sure. Twice as many Urban Dictionary users gave thumbs up to the phrase “pillow lust”, as had got behind “Safe sexting.” “Pillow lust” is “That feeling that college students experience where they feel so exhausted that the idea of their face hitting their pillow sounds so utterly fantastic, it’s almost sexual.”

My experience with college students has generally been a) that they may be lustful in the extreme and exhaustion will not drain the impulse, but b) it certainly has nothing to do with studying extra hard, and c) that they won’t be driven to their pillows if there’s a raging party in the apartment down the hall, no matter how knackered they may be, or d) in the alternative, if someone gives them tickets to Springsteen at Treasure Island. Oh, and safe sexting and pillow lust mugs, tee-shirts, and magnets are available with just a click.

I learned what a “beardo” is, when “froday” arrives, why “stfu” is something I’m not going to post to the comment boards, ditto “xio,” and that “ridin’ Qwerty” may be risky and illegal, but common.

English words and their combinations are slippery communication ingredients. Plus, as Urban Dictionary suggests, we’re busy as beavers making new ones, adjusting old ones, and shaping each one we use and each combination we construct to suit our purposes.

When committing oral or written communication, words may be indispensable, but they may also be meaningless, misleading, uninspiring, confusing, and clumsy. Used carelessly, words can defeat communication altogether. Strung together without a plan, collections of words that pretend to sentence or paragraph status may ultimately say nothing at all. Chop and trim them for texting, and you and your interlocutor may share a semi-private conversation with all the unspoken thrills and confidences such communication offers, but communicate nothing much at all.

Oh, clarity is that old virtue that written communication held dear. We loved clarity. We wished that words and their combinations could be as clear as any old, admirable English teacher taught us they should be. Now, perhaps, clear is not the goal. Perhaps the goal today is unspoken understanding, signs and symbols that presume that the recipient of your message will understand something and smile slyly.

Almost everyone who uses the language in the 21st century has learned that the dictionary guardians do not create the words or the meanings. They merely bless and catalogue what people conceive. And nowadays, there are so many new places to hunt for neologisms, to wit: Twitter, Instagram, text messages, the blogosphere, various ‘hoods in big cities, the indie film industry, and of course, the Urban Dictionary. You can’t think about words without stumbling over new ones. New words find their way into usage, fresh meanings attach to old familiar words, old meanings fall away, and in these ways the English vocabulary is enriched, or degraded, depending, I suppose, on how old, confused, and crusty you are.
Some of us play catchup as good old words become worn out or invested with new, sometimes mystifying meaning. Some of us say, oh, to hell with it. Communication suffers now and then, naturally, but English is a survivor. It’s the gnarliest language of them all.