The relationship between pets and their humans predates ancient civilization.
Evidence suggests dogs first formed a loosely domesticated relationship with humans as far back as 15,000 years ago. One can imagine the perilous early alliance between a human hunter and their trusty wolf prowling across an untamed wilderness—the very beginning of man’s best friendship.
Similarly, cats have been purring alongside humans for almost as long; felines became a useful companion to people in the early days of civilization, between 12,000 and 9,000 years ago. They became a resource once people started storing grain and other food and needed some help dealing with pesky mice. Cats’ usefulness as mousers continues to this day, with some esteemed felines serving their governments at the highest level, like Larry, the chief mouser at London’s 10 Downing Street.
People and pets have had a long and illustrious history, and it could be said that the relationship is as strong and fun as it has ever been. For proof, look no further than the internet’s lavish lexicon of pet slang language. If you’re not familiar with the library of words used to talk about our furry friends, you’re missing out on all matter of bleps, borks, floofs, and boops. And if you don’t know what any of those words meant, you’d best be advised to curl up with your number one pupper—or kitteh—and read on.
The Wonderful World of Doggos
According to an American Pet Products Association survey for 2017–18, 48 percent of Americans have a pet dog, making the faithful, tennis-ball-chasing tail-wagger the number one pet of the United States. But even though there are dogs in almost half the households across the country, until fairly recently, they were known, mostly, as “dogs” or “canines.” The internet changed that by introducing a number of new words into the pet vernacular, one of the most well-known being the word “doggo.”
Doggo reportedly has its roots in Australia, a land known for snappy slang like calling John “John-o” or breakfast “brekky.” This origin story is backed by dog care blogger and pet product entrepreneur Meg Marrs. A former study abroad student in Australia, Marrs had a firsthand view of the Aussie slang that made its way to American Instagram feeds: “The adding of -o, in particular, is popular for Aussies, and this kind of nicknaming is considered an exercise in affection.”
Among other factors, doggo rose to prominence thanks to Twitter phenom @Dog_Rates, which created legions of fans by praising and giving exceptionally high ratings to dogs classified as all matter of doggos, puppers, and woofers.
This is Leo. He ate his ice cream too fast. Brain officially frozen. Claims it was worth it. 13/10 would warm pup with pats pic.twitter.com/9yV8RUhu9g
— WeRateDogs™ (@dog_rates) July 2, 2018
David Adams is an entrepreneur with his own dog-centric start-up called SniffSpot, and he has seen the enthusiasm behind this new language firsthand. “The dog world is naturally a viral world,” Adams tells Urbo, “People love talking about their dogs.”
Adams shares that he and his girlfriend both have dogs, and they find a lot of joy from dogs in both the physical and digital worlds—“doggo lingo” is a big part of both.
Adams shares his favorite term: “sploot.” A sploot is when a dog or cat lays on their belly while plopping their legs right behind them. Adams’ dog Soba, a lab-pit mix, would sploot all the time to the laughter or Adams and his friends. “It was so hilarious that that word actually existed,” Adams recalls. “Like, there was a word for what she was doing.”
There are other terms that have attempted to attach a more specific term for a dog action—like the “boof.” Boof has been used to describe the low, closed-jaw sort of woof that can precipitate a full bark.
Now, the boof should not be confused with a “bork,” which seems harder to define but is a bark variation that came to prominence thanks to a dog named Gabe, whose “bork remixes” have racked up millions of views.
If it is getting difficult to make clear sense of these terms, fear not: The internet feeds on such inane perplexity. It’s why a simple “yip to boof” image elicits a raging debate in its comments section. (“I’ve always thought ‘boof’ was the equivalent of them muttering to themselves when they want to bark but know they’re not allowed to,” one comment reads.)
For observers like Marrs and Adams, the silly pet talk brings to mind the random absurdity of the Doge meme from back in 2013. But the roots of internet pet-speak reach farther back than “such doge” and “wow shibes,” back to a time when the dog’s confidently strutting frenemy, the cat, ruled the interwebs.
Cats Can Has Cheezburger
Way back in 2007, when many of today’s distinguished doggos were just little puppers, the internet got what could be called one of its first breakout memes in the form of “I Can Has Cheezburger,” a grey, meowing cat requesting a cheeseburger in broken English.
— Tenth Life (@tenthlifecats) July 31, 2014
The meme, and the website it spawned, became the foundation for Lolcats, one of the internet’s first meme aggregators. Lolcats relied heavily on lolspeak, a disjointed and childlike interpretation of how cats might talk to their human—or “hooman”—counterparts.
Bolstered by Lolcats, felines took the internet by storm in the late 2000s. One of YouTube’s earliest stars was the jaunty antics of Keyboard Cat—a feline named Fatso who actually left this world back in 1987 and was replaced by a cat named Bento once his tunes made it big—and the cat torch was carried on by Grumpy Cat in 2012.
In Marrs’ view, Lolcats and the other early famous internet cats undoubtedly paved the way for today’s internet pet language. “The ‘I Can Has Cheezburger’ meme,” Marrs writes, “has become part of the webaverse’s collective consciousness.”
Many pet-speak terms can apply to both cats and dogs, but the “blep” seems to be exclusively in the cat domain. A blep is when a cat ever so slightly sticks out its tongue. It’s actually a way for cats to taste the air around them and heighten their senses, animal behavior consultant Amy Shojai told Inverse—but if humans reward the irresistibly adorable behavior with treats and affection, the cats will continue the action to get what they want.
Also, when a pet uses their tongue to lap something up, that is called a “mlem.” The onomatopoeia of the “mlem mlem mlem” is characteristic of many internet pet slang terms—though in the case of a mlem, it might be more of an oNOMNOMNOMatopoeia.
Dogs and cats who are particularly fluffy can also be known as “floofs.” A floof, simply put, is a fluffy dog with a lot of fur, Marrs explains. Think Pomeranians, Samoyeds, or huskies. On the cat side of things, Persians are famous floofs. Marrs even co-opted the term in naming her dog products website, Think Of The Floofs.
A term that applies across the entire animal kingdom is the “boop.” A boop is when one creature gently touches the nose or snout of another creature. A human can boop their cat, or a cat can boop their human. Cats can boop dogs, dogs can boop cats, and both of them can even boop birds if they want. The boop is a universal sign of curiosity and affection. A snout can also be called a snoot, especially if the snoot has been booped.
If you’re getting confused, well…that might be part of the fun.
With so many terms floating around the internet, it can be tricky to keep up with all of the terms, and even harder to know which words are widely known and which ones are more relegated to sites like Imgur and Reddit—or as Adams describes them, the “bowels of the internet.”
“We try to be inclusive,” the family behind Fluff Society writes to Urbo. “We know that these terms aren’t understood by a lot of people who aren’t in the community, so we try to use it in a context that helps them understand.”
Adams has seen the positives and negatives of pet talk in communicating firsthand. While running social media for SniffSpot, Adams saw a 30-percent engagement increase when he used well-known terms like doggo and pupper. He says the terms are “eye-catching, funny, and cute…and they draw engagement.”
But the lexicon has its limits. Adams recalls posting about a doggie “blem” (in the same family as a blep) and confusing his audience.
“Nobody got it,” Adams recounts. “Nobody knew what it was.” He’s certain “sploot” falls in the same category.
The folks at Fluff Society make the point that context goes a long way in understanding these words: “It doesn’t feel like a different language because they’re just a fun combination of words we already know.”
While the etymology of these terms can be traced back to meme culture and Lolcats, it does raise the question as to why some of these words have become so popular as of late, with @Dog_Rates and other websites selling shirts, hats, and books to eager customers who can’t get enough pet speak.
The answer could be in the largest pet-owning generation today: Millennials. Yes, according to the APPA survey, millennials now own more pets than baby boomers or Generation Xers. With the generation who came of age alongside internet holding court over the petscape, perhaps it is no surprise that pet speak has run into the mainstream.
Adams argues that the language is just one of the ways that millennials are different pet owners than generations past. “The world is definitely changing,” he says.
Part of the Family
Pets have always been part of the family, but it can certainly be argued that millennials take the idea to a new level. The inclusion of dogs into everyday life has become a relatively new development, as evidenced by the controversial surge of pets accompanying anxious owners onto airplanes.
“Owners now want to take their pets everywhere,” shares Marrs. She says that in dog-friendly cities, like Austin, Texas, “dogs are welcome at nearly any establishment, indoors or outdoors. There are even several dog park bars that have popped up to cater to attentive owners, as well as dog-friendly office spaces, in addition to the plethora of pet-friendly coffee shops.”
She mentions that even Starbucks has a secret menu “puppuccino” so that your furry buddy has something to mlem while you slurp your latte.
Many single young adults will describe themselves as a “dog dad” or “cat mom” on social media, and Adams points out that some pet parents go to pretty wild lengths to keep their cats and doggos happy, including purchasing anxiety shirts and pet-grade antidepressants.
Adams and Marrs both say that this new pet vocabulary is an extension of the love and affection this generation is willing to shower onto their beloved pets.
Fluff Society agrees that it all comes from a place of animal appreciation, saying that it’s great whenever people relate other furry guys to household pets, “calling an otter a river doggo or a lion a danger kitty.” Utilizing fun words on the internet also lets folks bask in the cuteness of their pets while they are away at work or school and understand them more. For Fluff Society, that leads to “more walks, more cuddle time, more love.”
Humans—or hoomans—have forged deep connections with their pets for thousands of years. The link between pet and owner has evolved past a necessity for survival and into a new tier of emotional support and affection. The internet has allowed people to stay connected to their pets all day long, and so it is only natural that language has evolved to suit that need. What could the future hold? Moon doggos? Mlems on Mars?
Whatever words are used, there’s little doubt the relationship between pets and people will continue to be built on a timeless foundation of mutual affection, support, and love.