Lolcats: Where They Came From and Why We Love Them

lolcat no entry kitten

Combine a photo of a cat with a poorly written (bad spelling and incorrect subject-verb agreement are important) caption in sans serif font, and you’ve got a lolcat.

The term is a composite of “LOL,” which stands for “laugh out loud,” and “cat,” and the adorable images the word describes are an Internet phenomenon.

The first recorded use of the word lolcat occurred in 2005 on 4chan, an imageboard website that features cat photos on Saturdays, or “Caturdays.” However, these humorous images have been “slinking around the Internet for years under various labels, but they did not become a sensation until early 2007 with the advent of I Can Has Cheezburger?" according to The News Journal.

Website brought lolcats into the mainstream, garnering coverage from Time and Entertainment Weekly, which called them “da cutest distractshun of da decaid.”

Lolcats of the pre-digital age

lolcat cat photographer

Although lolcats are a relatively recent development, taking silly pictures of cats and tacking on amusing captions is hardly new. The first photographer to do just that was Harry Pointer.

During the 1870s, Pointer arranged his cats in a variety of unusual photos that mimicked human activities, including a cat riding a tricycle and cats roller-skating. He snapped more than 200 pictures of the funny felines, which are collectively known as the “Brighton Cats.”

Pointer’s photos were uncaptioned at first, but he soon realized that his images were even more amusing with a handwritten caption.

Photographer Harry Whittier Frees was known for similar cat photographs, but he also experimented with other animals, including dogs and rabbits. However, felines were his preferred species to work with.

"Rabbits are the easiest to photograph in costume, but incapable of taking many 'human' parts. Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal,” he said.

What is it about lolcats?

lolcat on bumper

We know they’re funny. And, yes, they’re adorable. But could there be something else behind the success of these lol-inducing images? Several studies reveal that these images could have a deeper psychological appeal than we realize.

Cat ownership has many physical benefits for humans, including lowering our risk of stroke and heart attack, but felines can also have a positive effect on our mental health. In fact, a 2003 Swiss study of 212 couples found that cats were more capable than spouses at alleviating negative moods.

But our attachment to cats seems to go even deeper than that. According to a Central Missouri State University study, people ascribe the same personality traits to cats that psychologists use to definite human personality: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness and openness.

Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network, says that our tendency to associate human emotions with our cats gives them the capacity to mimic our behavior.

lolcat kitten in plate of food

"Cats have very expressive facial and body expressions, so they are a perfect canvas for human emotion, which makes them awesome for captioning and anthropomorphization," Huh told The Huffington Post.

Finally, if you spend a lot of time on the Internet, you just might be wired to really like lolcats.

A University of Texas study found that those who identify themselves as dog people are more extroverted than self-proclaimed cat people. Those with a preference for felines, on the other hand, are likely more neurotic and creative.

And it turns out that the people who spend the most time online — and therefore generate the most Web content — tend to have personality traits that lean toward the neurotic side of the psychological spectrum, according to a study in the Australian Journal of Emerging Technologies.

What does this mean? The people who are naturally inclined to create and share Web content — including lolcats — are the very people who are likely to have a preference for cats. Perhaps this explains why the Internet is made of cats.

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Click for photo credits

Photo (paswerd lolcat): Dyl86/flickr

Photo (photographer cat): Wikimedia Commons

Photo (CAT lolcat): Wikimedia Commons

Photo (kitten): Dyl86/flickr