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OnWords: Letters (and Numbers) for Words as a Stylistic Choice


I ran across a phrase online the other day that I hadn’t seen in a while: “What, U mad?” with the letter “U” substituted for the word spelled “y-o-u.”

I don’t normally hang out where this phrase is used—it’s a way internet trolls tweak their targets—but the usage suddenly struck me as woefully out of date.

Using sound-alike letters or numbers to replace whole words, such as “U” for “y-o-u” or the Arabic numeral 2 for “t-o” or “t-o-o,” arose from texting on old-school cell phones. As many of us recall, those phones only had numeric buttons, with each number standing in for several letters. 

Because of this, each letter entered often required several keystrokes, and so shortcuts in spelling made sense as a way to increase texting efficiency and speed.

But now even low end smartphones feature apps with typewriter-style keyboards and predictive text. The latter pulls up the next word the software predicts given the context, your linguistic habits, and what you begin to type. This allows whole words to be entered, often at a single stroke. 

With no need for substituting letters or numbers for whole words, those who still do this are either being purposefully annoying or making a stylistic choice. Perhaps they are nostalgic for an only recently lost era when the phrase “What, U mad?” still got a lame laugh.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.