It’s All a Sign of Something: the Linguistic Morphology of Reaction Gifs

Chi Luu
Aug 10, 2015 · 10 min read
Illustration: Hyoin Min

Language Games that Might Give You a Case of the Howling Fantods

By Chi Luu


“You don’t, after all (despite withering cultural pressure), have to use a computer, but you can’t escape language: Language is everything and everywhere; it’s what lets us have anything to do with one another”

— David Foster Wallace, Tense Present


The writing of David Foster Wallace is awash with language games.

From a Wittgensteinian sense of simple language games within language, of communication that is not always verbal, to idiosyncratic and creative linguistic play, David Foster Wallace’s characters and situations are infused with a richness of language, of dialect, and even of idiolect, no matter how primitive. Even a guttural grunt or gesture is a sign of something.

‘… I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I’m complex.’

So Hal Incandenza, the putative protagonist of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, attempts to explain himself during his rather unusual University of Arizona interview. As readers, privy to his thoughts, we understand. Or we think we do. But for others:

‘What in God’s name are those …,’ one Dean cries shrilly, ‘… those sounds?’ …

It’s a surprise twist to our understanding of how language is supposed to work. Language can be subtly complex and people might not always get the thoughts you’re trying so hard to convey. Perhaps Hal should have face-palmed, (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ or rage quit instead of trying to make himself understood. It might all have gone very differently.

The bewildering blur of new slang and neologisms from internet culture is likewise not always so easy for university deans (and others) to understand. It’s like a whole new language at times. Though it may give some a case of the heebie-jeebies, or the howling fantods in Wallacian parlance, one of the more interesting aspects of internet culture is the transformative ways people engage in creative language play, particularly when it comes to expressing emotions through words alone. Without the advantage of facial expressions and body language (or grunts!) to convey social cues, it can be tricky to convey emotional intention through text. It has been argued, in Frances H. Rauscher, Robert M. Krauss and Yihsiu Chen’s 1996 study on gesture and lexical access, that the ability to gesture during spontaneous speech enhances a speaker’s access to the mental lexicon allowing speech to flow more easily. Well what happens in a medium where we don’t have access to gesture, only words, words, words?

Email, instant messaging and other online forums for speech have made the efficient communication of emotion and social cues necessary. As written communication has become more casual, frequent, faster and more remote between large groups of people, navigating social understanding has become crucial, as discussed in this 2008 paper on the semiotics of email interaction by Daniel A. Menchik and Xiaoli Tian. Menchik and Tian investigate how groups using email can convey social context without access to the nonlinguistic cues available in face-to-face communication. One such device (among many options) of course is the much maligned emoticon, which has a surprisingly long history, with possible antecedents dating from 1862.

The evolution from simple punctuation-based emoticons to more complex reaction gifs shows how more nuanced expressions are being stylized and conveyed in online culture. Emoticons have themselves developed some complexity, influenced by their Japanese counterparts known as kaomojis, which use combinations that include katakana characters, such as the shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and the ever popular table flip (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ . Emoticons that are frequently used have been developed into image versions of their punctuation selves (also known as emoji) and are so popular with internet users an emoji-only messenger is now available for those who like their communication short and sweet.

From visual emojis depicting simple emotional states, it’s a short step to more dynamic reaction gifs, used to respond in playful ways to an online discussion. These are gif images, originating from internet memes, that depict elements of body language that can be too complex for an emoticon to describe. Essentially, it’s an innovative way for speakers to convey a sense of gesture on the internet.

One such gesture is the so-called “face palm” action which conveys a kind of disbelief or second-hand embarrassment. Arguably the most well-known ‘face palm’ gif of all is that of Captain Picard of Star Trek fame.

The ‘face palm’ gif.

Thus, reaction gifs identify gestures in body language which are already prevalent in general pop culture. It is because these emotional responses are often well-worn tropes from film and narrative, based in a culture’s knowledge of nonlinguistic cues, that they can be more easily shared and understood.

Simple emoticons can be used straightforwardly in text to signal an emotional cue. A reaction gif seems to be used more creatively as a meta-commentary than purely authentically for conveying emotion. A good example is the previously mentioned table flip emoticon (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ to convey a comic extreme anger, and its gif counterparts, such as the animated one below, specifically drawn to show that trope.

One of many ‘table flip’ gifs.

Reaction gifs are all very well for mediums that allow images, but what about conveying gesture and emotion through text only? It has long been a convention of online vernacular to express action using descriptive phrases within punctuation marks such as *flips table* but it could be argued that it was not until the popularity of reaction gifs that speakers began to develop a robust shared lexicon of online gestures and that this began to move into speech itself.

Once a reaction has been identified, codified into a reaction gif, and then widely used and shared, it can often start to develop a morphological short form as users make more fluid reference to it in text. Based on the shared understanding of these terms these phrases could become lexicalized into compounds. This appears to be happening with ‘facepalm‘ and its fellow gestural neologisms, which has gone from a shorthand phrase such as ‘*face palm*‘ (which literally describes the gesture and might be appended to text), to the compound ‘face-palm‘ (sometimes fully lexicalized into a single word ‘facepalm‘) which may be used metaphorically as part of the utterance.

These compounds can gain traction outside the subculture from which it originated, and may jump from the sphere of the written word into spoken language. These new gestural compounds such as face-palm, head-desk, side-eye, table-flip can already be observed in mainstream news publications in productive noun and verb forms, for example:

  1. As a plural noun: “Aussies cause Oscars fashion facepalms(Source: Sydney Morning Herald)
  2. As a past tense verb: “He facepalmed on the country’s behalf” (Source: Esquire.com)

But wait, there’s more! Not content with just providing reaction gifs and their wordy versions to express gesture verbally, the linguistic stylings of internet culture can totally humblebrag about even more language innovation in conveying emotional states.

There’s a curious new phrasal construction in town which appears to pair together a (negative) mood word with a verb to produce a semi-productive compound. This gives added emotional color to actions in a similar way to reaction gifs.

Possibly one of the oldest and well known examples is ‘rage quit’, Internet slang which originated in online gaming culture. It is still primarily used in reference to gaming, yet has also found its way to mainstream usage. It refers to the act of quitting a game (or chat room) due to anger. In mainstream examples, it more generally refers to quitting any situation abruptly due to extreme frustration. It’s used most often as a verb but can also be used as a noun. Other examples include the aforementioned ‘stress cook’, ‘angry clean’ with possible edge cases such as ‘humble brag’ and ‘ugly cry’.

  1. Rage quitting: “rage-quitting a job isn’t the mature reaction”, Source: arstechnica.com
  2. Stress cooking: “Stress cooking: It’s a guy thing”, Source: latimes.com
  3. Angry cleaning: “she knew all about the angry cleaning”, Source: Huffington Post
  4. Humble bragging: “We all know those people who are constantly humble-bragging about their perfect lives”, Source: The Guardian
  5. Ugly crying: “How Claire Danes Made Ugly Crying OK”, Source: Cosmopolitan

These compounds hardly need defining, being usually endocentric, meaning that one of the component words, the head, carries the basic semantic meaning of the entire phrase, while the other component word, the non-head, serves to constrain the type. The head in these cases is the verb. So ‘rage quit’ is a kind of quitting action while in the emotional state of being enraged, ‘stress cook’ is a type of cooking while stressed and so on.

In themselves, each phrase may not be outwardly remarkable, but what’s interesting is taken together as a class of compounds, they are further reflective of how Internet culture has added nuance to the shared lexicon of speaking, in much the same way as reaction gifs express complex gestures. These constructions appear to be somewhat productive, as new combinations can be produced (with certain constraints) and can be generally understood by speakers without explanation.

Whether you celebrate internet neologisms or side-eye them hard, the language games of the internet are here to stay.

Adrienne Lehrer’s 1998 study on the semantics of English combining forms discusses the creation of new morphemes in neologisms arising from blends such as workaholic (work + alcoholic) and chocoholic (chocolate + alcoholic) which gives rise to -holic as a productive suffix that undergoes semantic widening to develop a new meaning from its original word. So a workaholic is not a type of alcoholic but someone addicted to work.

The meaning attached to -holic widens to refer to the ‘addict’ part of ‘alcoholic addiction’. Other examples include -thon as in marathon, telethon, but Lehrer also has examples where a prefix may be productive, such as the Mc- from McDonalds with “neologisms like McGreedy, McCancer, and McGarbage [and] McJobs”. In this last example the prefix is not acting as the head of the neologism, but lends an added meaning to the head. Thus McJobs refers to a type of low-paying employment and not a type of ‘Mc-’, which, unattached to a word, is not really salient for speakers.

Similarly, mood words like stress, rage, angry, although they are non-heads in this kind of compound construction, may be developing into productive morphemes that layer an emotional sense to otherwise neutral actions. In some sense, they’re almost interchangeable judging from real-world examples such as this article in which rage clean and angry clean are synonyms for each other. We can find instances in the wild of these compounds where each of these non-head words appear with the same verbs, see:

stress baking, rage baking, angry baking
stress cleaning, rage cleaning, angry cleaning
stress cooking, rage cooking, angry cooking

It’s interesting that given a new neutral verb, such as swim or drive, forms such as stress swimming, rage driving would likely be acceptable to a native speaker. Ugly crying allows for its opposite ugly laughing but is more restricted in usage, while humble can be found in humble bragging but not many other phrases. It seems easier to find examples of this construction when the mood is negative rather than positive and not all mood words are created equal. For example we don’t readily see ‘happy cleaning‘ or ‘joy baking‘ as similar constructions, though in context that reading could be understood. It may be that the words ‘stress’, ‘rage’ and ‘angry’ are popularly behaving in much the same way as complex gestures in reaction gifs but more as stylized emotional components for actions, that may become more productive morphemes for word formation in future.

Whether you celebrate internet neologisms or side-eye them hard, the language games of the internet are here to stay. Even self-described SNOOTs might find it fascinating to observe the creative and colorful evolution of how people express emotions in today’s online world.

This story has been modified from All the Feels: The Morphology of Reaction Gifs and More on Internet Neologisms: Rage Quitting is a Thing and appears courtesy of JSTOR Daily.


Citations
Putting Social Context into Text: The Semiotics of E‐mail Interaction
Daniel A. Menchik and Xiaoli Tian
American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 114, No. 2 (September 2008), pp. 332–370
Published by: The University of Chicago Press

The Discourse of Computer-Supported Media: Reading and Writing on Usenet
Paul Delany
The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 25, Non-Standard Englishes and the New Media Special Number (1995), pp. 213–224
Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association

Gesture, Speech, and Lexical Access: The Role of Lexical Movements in Speech Production
Frances H. Rauscher, Robert M. Krauss and Yihsiu Chen
Psychological Science, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Jul., 1996), pp. 226–231
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of theAssociation for Psychological Science

Metaphor as a Productive Process in the Formation of Nominal Compounds: Canadian English
Barbara P. Harris
Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 24, No. 1/2 (Nov., 1989), pp. 62–71
Published by: Penn State University Press on behalf of thePacific Ancient and Modern Language Association

Investigating the Morphological Productivity of Verbal Prefixation in the History of English
Anne Schröder
AAA: Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2008), pp. 47–69
Published by: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH Co. KG

Scapes, Holics, and Thons: The Semantics of English Combining Forms
Adrienne Lehrer
American Speech, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), pp. 3–28
Published by: Duke University Press


Chi Luu is a linguist and writer for Lingua Obscura at JSTOR Daily.


Just Words

Writers, artists, and thinkers celebrating David Foster Wallace. A publication from A24 and the upcoming film THE END OF THE TOUR.

    Chi Luu

    Written by

    Chi Luu

    I play with words for a living.

    Just Words

    Writers, artists, and thinkers celebrating David Foster Wallace. A publication from A24 and the upcoming film THE END OF THE TOUR.

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