The Secret (Internet) Language Of Parents

Between FTM (first-time mom) and SAHD (stay-at-home dads) is a world of language that can be both welcoming and intimidating.

The Secret (Internet) Language Of Parents
[Photo: Goodluz via Shutterstock]

FTM. SAHD. NAK. GOAT.* Are you lost yet? If you don’t understand these acronyms it may be because they have been cultivated by a select group of people. Like the cats who popularized cheezeburgers and LOLs or the shiba inu’s “dogespeak,” which is heavy on the wows, much, and such, parents communicating on the web have created their own slang, replete with abbreviations and hashtags.


Linguist Gretchen McCulloch explains that the rise of this sociolect (aka a variety of language spoken by a particular social group) is pretty common. “Different social groups often use a unique set of words, either because they’re often talking about a particular topic (any workplace has its jargon), or to distinguish themselves from people who aren’t part of that group. Think about adults trying and failing to properly imitate teen slang,” she tells Fast Company

“It makes sense that parents and other caregivers would be using certain words that are different from non-parents,” McCulloch says. “After all, if you don’t spend much time with kids, you have much less reason to talk about Ferberization versus co-sleeping.”

Practicality is also a factor. When you’re zipping along typing on a message board, it’s often easier to use abbreviations for common phrases. Hence the use of DH, DD, DS for “dear husband, dear daughter, dear son,” she says. These acronyms are not new. In fact, many were in use in the early days of the web, in the 1990s, when niche groups had only Listserv to communicate with members.

Photo: Flickr user Ed Ivanushkin

But they also served to inject a bit of “cheekiness.” Back in 2005, researchers Patricia Drentea and Jennifer Moren-Cross found that mothers used DH or DD to soften a complaint about their families when they were stressed.

For the record, a recent study found that the self-imposed stress to appear as the perfect parent has spilled over to dads. The fathers surveyed reported that trading anecdotes about kids was fine, but talking about achieving work-life balance, not so much. “People don’t want to give away that they are feeling stressed out,” one participant said.


The Light And Dark Side Of Hashtags

As technology and social channels have evolved, so too has the sociolect of parents–and the pressure to appear in the best light. Hashtags have become just as prevalent as abbreviations thanks to Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook.

Julia Beck, founder of Forty Weeks, a consultancy focused on expectant and new mothers, notes that #familystyle has risen along with the uptick in photos of families in coordinated or matching gear. There are also some negative ones such as #assholeparent and #pinsanity. Beck explains, “#pinsanity is about Pinterest shaming–making others feel lousy with your perfection.” (Somewhere, someone is debating whether this should fall in the department of #realparentproblems.)

One of the findings that surfaced from Facebook’s global study of parents on its platform was how positively they viewed their family life. Eighty-three percent of parents globally describe their family as loving, and over three-quarters (77%) say their family is happy. But nearly half (48%) also confessed to being concerned about their finances, while 39% reported being crunched for time. The resulting longing for more “me” time translated into hashtags such as #denkepause (thinking break) or simply #amigos.

Ciaran Blumenfeld, who is the founder of Hashtracking and Momfluential, has seen hashtags started by an individual and built into a brand. She tells Fast Company that #assholeparent, #averageparentproblems, and others came about as a bit of a backlash from the “feeling of scrutiny and criticism” that comes out of everyone posting photos of their shiny, happy families on social media.

The hashtags have both positive and negative implications, she believes. On the plus side, “They are funny and give people a sense that it’s okay [not to be perfect],” Blumenfeld notes. And there have been plenty of helpful hashtags for parents to search and identify with their individual child’s needs.


Blumenfeld has also seen hashtags as a source of activism. “Breastfeeding hashtags created change,” she says, when users rallied around a news story of someone who ran into problems breastfeeding at work or in public. Blumenfeld has also witnessed a community spring up around postpartum depression, which is helping influence those struggling through it with their return to work, as well as support for it as part of a larger health care issue.

Photo: Flickr user Eco Dalla Luna

“But when they cross over into meme territory,” she contends, “they are expressions of comedy where children are unwitting actors.” There are larger implications of privacy, and not just for the kids, Blumenfeld says. “Any time you are online, you are in public,” she says. In other words, be cautious if you are a working parent and posting with hashtags that you can’t get to work if your kid is sick, and you made a different excuse to your supervisor.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Blumenfeld, who has two children ages 7 and 19. “People hold very little back online. My comfort level isn’t on par with a millennial parent,” she admits. As for how oversharing will play at work, she says, “A lot has to do with who their employer is,” and advises erring on the side of caution, because it could invite criticism.

Sociolects, parenting or otherwise, are inherently a double-or even triple-edged sword. On the plus side, Dr. Cinzia Russi at the University of Texas at Austin says, “I argue that slang can instead be a creative response to online communicative constraints, and can have a solidarity-invoking function when used in social networking settings.” Susan Herring, a linguist at Indiana University at Bloomington, points out that some words like woot have transcended hacker sociolect and fond a place in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

“Like with any in-group vocabulary, I expect some people probably find these acronyms confusing and off-putting, while other people find them efficient or effective at reinforcing a sense of group belonging,” asserts Gretchen McCulloch. “It does seem practical to have shorter ways of saying things, especially for people who are typing while NAK, so I imagine that at least some of them will stick around!”

*FTM (first-time mom), SAHD (stay-at-home dad), NAK (nursing at keyboard), GOAT (not an exact acronym, refers to reading a thread and adding something meaningful)


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.