Friendship and FOMO in The Crossword Puzzle

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This is Clued In, a column that will give you insight into some of the New York Times Crossword clues and answers.

FOMO has been used in five New York Times crossword puzzles, according to XWordInfo. It first appeared as an entry in 2017 with the clue “Feeling that everyone’s having fun without you, in modern lingo” and has been clued several other ways, including “Anxiety about being excluded from the fun, for short.” Most recently, it appeared in Wednesday’s puzzle, constructed by Rose Conlon.

FOMO — fear of missing out — is the experience of feeling left out of a gathering, event or moment of connection among friends. The concept of friendship underwent a major shift during the coronavirus pandemic, and that change will most likely create a ripple effect for decades to come. Social distancing guidelines turned weekend brunches and monthly dinner plans into Zoom happy hours, “how are you?” texts and FaceTime calls. Some people bonded over crossword puzzles, leaning on group chats for a sense of community.

The first written record of FOMO appeared in May 2004, when Patrick J. McGinnis used the term in an op-ed in The Harbus, Harvard Business School’s magazine. McGinnis is credited with coining both FOMO and FOBO, or Fear of a Better Option, but FOMO caught on and spread faster than FOBO ever did, Sylvia Sierra, a linguist and assistant professor at Syracuse University, told me.

“These kinds of acronyms or neologisms are hard to pin down in terms of origins,” Ms. Sierra said, “but it seems generally accepted that the coinage of FOMO can be traced back to the early 21st century.”

In August 2004, the term appeared online in the North Coast Journal and, Ms. Sierra said, “a lot of people seem to mistakenly attribute that as the first instance of FOMO.” The publication featured a woman who gave a definition for FOMO, which reveals “just how new this neologism was in 2004,” she added.

Social media is often the impetus for the feeling of FOMO. Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, said she first heard about FOMO in relation to social media because it “ratchets up the likelihood that you’ll hear about an event you weren’t invited to and have to actually see photos of the smiling, happy people who are at the event.” Those same people may be miserable and smiling only for the photo, she added, or they may have made a fleeting appearance at the event, just long enough to get a picture to post.

Fundamentally, FOMO is more tied to anxiety than fear, Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist, said. “Fear is a biological response to an immediate threat, whereas anxiety is anticipatory,” she said. “We’re worried about the consequences of missing out on an experience.”

Experts say FOMO can be avoidable, pandemic notwithstanding. “If we feel secure with ourselves and secure with our friendships, we can see our friends hanging out without us and not take it personally,” Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist, said. “Feeling insecure, feeling like something’s lacking in our own life, mental health issues — those can be a trigger for FOMO.”

Two people can go on social media and have completely different experiences, Dr. Franco pointed out. One person can see a post and not feel left out or sad at all, while the other person can look at the same post and feel excluded and hurt. Fundamentally, “FOMO is an interpretation process,” she said.

“I didn’t set out to include FOMO in this puzzle, but I’m glad it ended up fitting because I like seeing slang that especially younger solvers can relate to. I originally clued it as “Anxiety around skipped plans, for short” but I prefer the editors’ version — social media definitely can induce it!”


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