The Top of the Exclamation Ladder

Imagine that a friend just emailed you a humorous YouTube clip and prefaces the bit with a simple, “This is funny.”

The clip is in fact funny and you’re going to respond. What do you say? Probably not, “That was funny.”

You’ll likely go with something like “Hilarious!” or “I’m dying! Too good!” or something of that nature.

Yet the video clip may have been, in your eyes and by any normal measurement, regular ol’ funny—not knee-slapping, heehawing hilarious.

There is a curious quality in the way email and digital communication makes us escalate exclamation. If you had responded to “This is funny” with “That was funny,” your friend would probably have wondered whether you’d actually watched the clip or, perhaps, didn’t think it was funny whatsoever. However, if that friend hadn’t said anything when they sent the clip, “That was funny” would probably pass for an acceptable response. You have to take the banter to a higher level to be polite.

I sometimes think back to the evolution of indicating something was funny over AOL instant messenger. Ten years ago, it was okay to say “hehe”, and then “haha” came along, then “HAHA”, then “LOL”(laughing out loud, which just made it into the Oxford dictionary), then “LMAO” (laughing my ass off), then “ROFL” (rolling on the floor laughing).

That’s quite a progression. Who knows where we’re headed next. (IJHAS? “I just had a seizure!”)

Or think how exclamatory adjectives don’t mean as much anymore. If I tell you something is “amazing”, does it really catch your attention as much as the definition—“inspiring awe or admiration or wonder”—suggests it should?* According to that definition, you should drop whatever you’re doing. But we’re told twenty times a day that something is “amazing.” It’s become white noise, yet it’s one of our languages most powerful words.

Why has this happened?

Part of the reasoning definitely lies in the aforementioned “inundation factor.” You can only be told that there are “unbelievable!” offers on home loans, iPods, transcontinental flights and Viagra before the buzz, unfortunately, starts to dilute the power of your friends’ words too.

But another part of me wonders if it comes back to what I think of as a Step Ladder Effect to words and punctuation. Words have levels to them and lack the gradations and nuance of human interaction. If I wrote that something was “awesome”, you’d at least have to acknowledge, “Awesome!”, and take it up a level. Yet if we were sitting around the computer and that was my intro, I’d be fine with you just laughing. The human interaction of your chuckle was all I needed.

To be polite, we have to keep stepping up that ladder. It’s how acknowledgement works over the wires. To stay at the same level is, for some reason, sorta rude or giving off the impression that you’d actually prefer to step down a rung but are trying (poorly) to be nice.

The phenomenon makes me wonder if we’re going to need, or will evolve, a new system for exclamation. I don’t know what it would be; a new font, punctuation mark or even invented word (“redonkulous!”) would be diluted just as quickly.

The evolution of language is outpacing its creation. We’ve reached the top of the ladder—the internet accelerated our climb—and we’re taking too long to build more rungs. Isn’t that AMAZING?

*A great article was written about the death of “Amazing” and I can’t find it, please share if you know the piece I’m talking about.


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Caleb’s recent column on Bleacher Report.

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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at


One Response to The Top of the Exclamation Ladder

  1. john says:

    That was funny

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