What Does Calling Someone “Mom” On The Internet Mean?

While Kim Kardashian was busy “breaking the Internet” with her controversial photoshoot for Paper in November of 2014, New Zealand singer/songwriter Lorde was teaching the world—or at least her Twitter and Tumblr followers—about a new slang use of the word mom.

How is mom used on the internet?

These three little letters tweeted out by Lorde in response to Kardashian’s cover photo caused such confusion that the 18-year-old felt compelled to explain what she meant by mom in this particular context. On Tumblr, Lorde responded to a concerned fan who asked how could she call herself a feminist, but then judge Kardashian for being a mother and posing nude. Lorde writes: “i retweeted kim’s amazing cover and wrote ‘MOM’, which among the youthz is a compliment; it basically jokingly means ‘adopt me/be my second mom/i think of you as a mother figure you are so epic.’”

It’s clear that this use of mom is not just a part of Lorde’s idiolect from a fan’s tweet defending her: “I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt and assuming she’s saying, like ‘omg mom.'” From this tweet, it’s obvious that “omg mom” (followed by a smiley face with hearts in its eyes) is very different than just calling out the fact that someone is literally a mother. “The benefit of the doubt” implies that misinterpretation is a real possibility and that mom has more senses than just the most common meaning. Lorde’s explanation makes it clear that the stand-alone mom can be an expression of adulation or variations on the rhetorical question, “Will you be my mom?”

How long have people been asking other people to be their moms in this way? Here are examples from 2007 and 2010 where “being cool” warrants the evocation of mom:

It seems like Lorde’s use of mom in reference to admired famous people didn’t really become widespread until the last year or two. Evidence of this trend is relatively hard to find because people predominately use the word mom or the hashtag #mom to refer to their actual moms, or to friends’ moms who they want to be their moms (often because the mommed individual has just baked something delicious looking). It’s much more obvious that this particular use of mom is in play when teen girls tweet at childless celebrities like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Chloe Grace Moretz as detailed on Buzzfeed. Model and actress Ruby Rose noticed that her fans were calling her mom.

Yes, Ruby Rose. The Internet is a confusing place, but it’s comforting to know that when lighted by the glow of our devices, anyone we admire can be our mom. All we have to do is type the word.

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Jane Solomon is a lexicographer based in Oakland, CA. She spends her days writing definitions and working on various projects for Dictionary.com. In the past, she’s worked with other dictionary publishers including Cambridge, HarperCollins, Oxford, and Scholastic, and she was a coauthor of “Among the New Words,” a quarterly article in the journal American Speech. She is also part of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, the group that decides what new emoji pop up on our devices. Jane blogs at Lexical Items, and she is the author of the children’s book The Dictionary of Difficult Words.

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