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Some Srs Bsns: Are Words Without Vowels Rlly More Efficient?

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How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

Vowel-less words, like srsly, thx, k, pls, rlly, srs bsns, and o rly, are a well-known feature of internet language. They save time and space in typing, but are they really more efficient? Why do we use these abbreviations and not others? How is it that we can actually understand them? And are they just straightforward abbreviations, or do they pick up additional meaning?

First of all, why would we omit vowels rather than consonants? Well, there are a couple reasons. One is that while words tend to contain a fairly even split between sheer numbers of vowels and consonants, there are far more kinds of consonants than kinds of vowels: your odds of guessing the right vowel are 1 in 5, while your odds of guessing the right consonant are 1 in 20 (ignoring y). So it's easier to tell that cnsnnt is "consonant" with the vowels removed than that oe is "vowel" without any consonants, especially if you have some clues from the general topic of conversation.

In fact, if you look at writing systems around the world, not all alphabets even include vowels: in Arabic and Hebrew, for example, you don't normally write the short vowels because they only have three of them (a, i, and u), so it's pretty easy to figure out which to say where from context. But there aren't any languages where you only write vowels and not consonants.

What's going on with these internet slang words is actually slightly more complicated: a lot of these "vowel-less" words aren't exclusively missing vowels. Rather, it's something like any "less important" letter. For example, double letters get dropped in srs bsns and o rly, thx loses its 'n' and combines its 'ks' into 'x', and the 'y' in rlly and o rly is kept despite being pronounced like a vowel (not to mention o rly's 'o'). And that starts getting us into other ways you can drop letters — is v. for very a v. tiny acronym, or simply a few centuries of people deciding that the '-ery' simply isn't that important? And the newer p for pretty is p much the same question.

Whether they're strictly vowel-less or just reduced, though, don't these words just mean the same as their longer equivalents? Well, not so fast. Some of them do, pretty much: pls and thx and k are just slightly quicker and more informal than please and thanks and ok. But srs bsns embodies a contradiction: "serious business" sounds, well, serious, and internet slang is anything but — it's not surprising that its primary use has always been sarcastic.

And finally here's a question that I can't figure out by myself: if you use any of these terms, how do you pronounce them in your head? Since it's hard to pronounce a word without any vowels at all, I think I often end up mentally saying the vowels a bit quicker or less distinctly than the vowels in the original words, but they're still basically there. Srs is perhaps only two syllables (ser-russ rather than se-ri-ous), and v. and p get pronounced like the letters. But of course, I can't hear anyone else's voice inside their head, so how would you say them?

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What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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