The Grammarphobia Blog

Smiling out loud

Q: I was watching The Story of G. I. Joe on cable TV when a character used the term “SOL” – the abbreviation, not the sun or the musical note. I had thought that this shorthand was of recent vintage, but there it was in a 1945 movie.

A: The abbreviation “SOL,” pronounced ESS-OH-EL, is a lot older than that World War II movie. How about World War I?

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says it’s been around since the 1910s as an adjective meaning “unfortunate, unlucky, in a difficult situation.” And, as Cassell’s adds, “[abbr. shit out of luck].”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a US abbreviation for “soldier out of luck,” “surely out of luck,” and, of course, “shit out of luck.”

The first citation in the OED is from a 1917 description of slang used by the American Expeditionary Forces in Word War I:

“S.O.L. — Payroll abbreviation for Soldier, adapted to mean Soldier Out ‘a Luck or Certainly Out ‘a Luck, according to the way you spell it. Applicable to everything from death to being late for mess.”

This initialism (an abbreviation formed from the first letters of the words in a phrase) is alive and well today, with even more meanings.

In cyberspace, for example, “SOL” may stand for not only all of the senses mentioned above, but also “smiling out loud” and “sooner or later.”

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