The tilde is 3,000 years old, but is there any grapheme that’s more ~of the times~? The little traveling worm, originally designed to convey approximation (and used in Spanish and Portuguese to denote certain sounds), expresses so much more: strangeness, emotional and physical distance — but perhaps most importantly, sarcasm.
“We’ve been looking for a sarcastic punctuation mark for hundreds of years now,” says Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who’s writing a book about internet language. Back in the 1580s, the English printer Henry Denham proposed that we use a reversed question mark as our indicator of sarcastic language use. In 1668, the philosopher John Wilkins wrote an essay proposing that we use an inverted exclamation mark as punctuation for ironic statements. But these punctuation marks never caught on, McCulloch noted, because “every time a reversed question mark was used, it had to be footnoted, which of course killed all the fun.”
The tilde, though, seems to have bypassed that problem. “If I say that your question is wonderful, you’re going to interpret it as the most common meaning,” explained linguist Michelle McSweeney, a researcher at Columbia University. “But if I say that it’s ~wonderful~, you understand that I don’t mean the boring, old meaning of wonderful.”
If there were such a thing as “visual onomatopoeia,” the tilde would definitely be it. The tilde looks like what it means — like it’s shrugging, or swaying in the breeze, like it sorta knows, ish.
Though “visual onomatopoeia” isn’t actually a real idea, when I floated the idea by the linguist Lauren Gawne, she referenced a 1929 study done by German-American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler on what he titled the “bouba/kiki effect.” In the study, both American college students and Indian Tamil speakers were shown two different shapes — one curvy, and one jagged. The participants were then asked which of these shapes was named bouba and which was named kiki. In both the English and the Tamil-speaking groups, 95 to 98 percent picked the curvy shape as “bouba” and the jagged shape as “kiki.” In other words, the names of objects are not arbitrary — which means, by extension, that our reasons for repurposing punctuation marks may not be so arbitrary, either.
As much as we’d like to think we’re the first to invent everything internet (Gawne cited the “recency illusion” here), Twitter users — the most frequent deployers of the tilde — are not the first to give it a second lingual purpose. Back in the 1990s we absolutely littered AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe with tilde flair. For example, it wasn’t uncommon to see an AOL profile adorned in beautiful tilde roses:
… Or an earnest little curtain of tildes around the well-worn line of a Rumi poem in the “Personal Quote” section of the same profile:
~~~~~~~~~~“The beauty you see in me is a reflection of you.”~~~~~~~~~
… And not to be forgotten is the 1990s ~hey~ tilde:
Back then, the ~hey~ tilde was a flirtatious tilde — a sort of prehistoric salsa-dancer emoji, if the salsa-dancer emoji was frequently deployed in invitations to go do dirty things in private chat rooms. (Quick! Go get your mom!) This tilde was used to temper the weird things people began using the internet for, like “cyber,” as it was called back in the day.
It also signified an early step in the tilde’s shift from total earnestness to something else. These days, there’s not much room for earnestness on the internet, and the transformation is basically complete: What was once a marker of sincerity has now been co-opted to signify the opposite. The snark of today’s internet tilde is frequently amped up by the company of its “funk-tuation” brethren — namely, the internet asterisk and the internet pattern of mis-capitalization. On Gawne’s addictive blog, Superlingo, her associate Georgia Webster refers to all of these new grapheme uses as “sparkly unicorn punctuation.” They work well together:
Another timely thing that the internet tilde happens to be ~~particularly excellent~~ at? Mocking the powers that be. Tildes often signal an upcoming troll of a powerful person, company, concept, or some combination:
When I asked Blake Montgomery, the author of the above tweet, about the tildes in it, he responded, “With ~brands~, it’s about companies trying to be your BFF on social media, but they’re disingenuously trying to sell you something. They’re not cool, they’re trying too hard. The tildes, to me, say that something is not as meaningful, opulent, or important as it tries to come off.”
Indeed, snarky responses to brands’ sincerity often invoke the tilde:
What’s perhaps funniest about the tilde as a tool of mocking protest is that those being protested cannot easily track it. Say you’re Pepsi — you can’t log into Twitter and search for “~” in your mentions, as the service offers no search on the character. In my book I Love My Computer Because My Friends Live in It, I wrote a behind-the-scenes story about how the corporate Twitter sausage is made, and it often involves spending abject fortunes on services like Hootsuite’s sentiment analysis software — a way of gauging the public mood on your company or brand. As far as I can tell, these systems don’t have any mechanisms in place to account for tilde snark. (I asked Hootsuite about this, but never heard back.)
Which makes the humble tilde a powerful weapon on today’s internet is, it’s a way of registering your disdain while flying under the radar, a sort of siren call for other who feel similarly: The tilde is a signal to like-minded users that they can mine another layer of meaning out of your message, one a little snarkier than the words themselves might suggest. And in a time when the leader of the free world is making up words in his midnight revenge-tweets, we need all the snark-creating tools we can get. There is nothing more now than the tilde.
Jess Kimball Leslie is the author of I Love My Computer Because My Friends Live in It.