The only way to explain the reaction to Merriam-Webster’s year-end announcement that “doggo” was one of the dictionary’s “Words We’re Watching” is to use another colloquialism: Twitter lost its damn mind.
It wasn’t the first time Merriam, the hippest dictionary that ever was (sorry, Oxford), incorporated internet-beloved words into its corpus; it recently added definitions for the terms “troll,” “woke,” and “hashtag.” Nor was it the first time social media reacted strongly to such a move (see: the Great “Shade” Elation of 2017). But for the prestigious lexical arbiter to acknowledge doggo’s place and popularity was a win for practitioners of “DoggoSpeak,” a specialized vernacular used primarily in memes extolling the cuteness of dogs. (DoggoSpeak includes fun-to-say made-up words like doggo, pupper, flufferino, and doge. You probably don’t have to be fluent to translate, though NPR did a thorough deep-dive on the vocabulary.)
The announcement was also a recognition by Merriam that its original entry for “doggo”—defined as “in hiding—used chiefly in the phrase to lie doggo”—was out of step with its more current incarnation. “The nature of lexicography in general is that it always lags behind language, and that’s the case with doggo,” says Merriam-Webster associate editor Kory Stamper. “The real swell of the modern doggo wave came in 2016 and 2017 with the popularization of the WeRateDogs Twitter account.”
There’s a certain truth to this. Doggo first popped up on WeRateDogs on April 1, 2016:
But while the account brought the word to WeRateDogs’s 5 million followers, Matt Nelson, the account’s founder, is quick to clarify he can’t be credited with its genesis. “I didn’t coin the term,” he says, “but I did recognize that dog-lovers latched on to it quickly.”
Actually, there’s a strong case to be made that the word originated in Australia. To start, doggo first gained traction on a Facebook group called Dogspotting, a 10-year-old community that became quite popular in Australia, says internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch.
“Australian English has this tendency to make cute pet-names, what’s known in the literature as hypocoristics,” McCulloch says. “Like ‘afternoon’ becomes ‘arvo,’ or ‘avocado’ becomes ‘avo,’ or John becomes ‘John-o’.”
Ben Bergen, a cognitive science professor at UC San Diego, also notes “the -o suffix is much more common in Australia and Great Britain. Like ‘boy-o’ or nicknames for people, like ‘Jim-o.’”
“It’s possible the [Australians on Dogspotting] were just using this slang and it caught on as an internet thing because people encountered it in the group,” McCulloch says.
McCulloch’s research on doggo led her further down under, to a 1966 document titled “Industrial and intellectual property in Australia, Volume 3” in which the word was referenced as an affectionate term for a dog. (Doggo as a term for dog also made an appearance in a 1994 novel set in Sydney called the Weston Men’s Tennis Club.)
But if the term has been around awhile, why did the internet just recently latch on to it?
There are a couple of explanations for this. The first is that it was circumstantial, that the term happened to hit at a moment when the collective craved something cute. “I would say the term ‘doggo’ caught on because of the rise of the wholesome meme,” McCulloch says. “In the aftermath of the election, and even in 2016, there was this idea that the internet is becoming a more hostile or less friendly place. So here’s this kind of feel-good meme that’s becoming popular because no one can disagree with the fact that this doggo is cute.”
If doggo has been around awhile, why did the internet just recently latch on to it? It might be that the term hit at a moment when the collective craved something cute.
That would track with at least part of the reason M-W added it to its list. “There was no precipitating event that led to its being highlighted on the feature, though I’ll confess I’m a big fan of @dog_rates on Twitter,” Stamper says, “and it’s pretty likely the dog-picture sanity breaks I take while mired in defining work might have led to me thinking more about the word ‘doggo.’”
But McCulloch has another theory, one that often explains any shift in internet behavior: the rise of smartphones. “Back when I had a digital camera, first, I didn’t always have my digital camera on me. And, if I did, to get those photos off of the digital camera, I had to plug it into my computer, I had to find the cable, upload them, etc. And I wasn’t going to do that for someone else’s random dog!” she says.
“But now, you have a camera with you at all times that has internet connectivity and you can take photos of stuff in your environment and easily share them with people. And sometimes, those photos are of dogs.”
(The rise of the smartphone camera could also partially explain a longstanding internet trope: the early internet is for cats and the social internet is for dogs. Felines dominated when people could only upload pictures from their homes, where kittehs rule. But dogs, especially other people’s puppers, can be photographed and shared with Instagram or Facebook from almost anywhere.)
The question now is, will doggo stick around? WeRateDogs’ Nelson has seen a fall in the term’s popularity and has subsequently curtailed his own use of it. “I’d say within the past six months, I’ve started to use doggo a little bit less because it doesn’t invoke the same reaction that it once did.”
The term’s best chance of survival is its potential internet-to-IRL crossover appeal. “It definitely has all of the characteristics of a word that could very easily go from online to offline,” McCulloch says. “It started as an offline word; it’s very pronounceable; it doesn’t rely on punctuation or capitalization or any sort of typographical tricks to make it legible. And, anecdotally, people are less self-conscious about the kind of language they use to talk to their dogs, so they’re probably more willing to use slang or cute terms or affectionate terms. That being said, the sharper something rises, the sharper it can fall.”
Plus, in the pantheon of persistent palabras, a word like “selfie” had staying power because it defined a new cultural construct: the now-ubiquitous act of pointing a camera at yourself and snapping a pic. Doggo has the misfortune of competing in a crowded “marketplace of words,” Bergen notes. Synonyms, it would seem, are, ahem, a bitch.