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orz (also known as OTL) is an emoticon used to express one’s feeling of hopelessness in jest, often as a result of failure. The text visually represents a person kneeling on the ground with face down; “O” represents the head, “R” as the arms and “Z” as the torso. In East Asian cultures, the shape of “Orz” resembles a body gesture that signifies frustration or feeling of despair, typically as a result of one’s own failure though it can be used to convey frustration towards others similar to facepalm.
The physical gesture of “kneeling on the ground in defeat” has been previously portrayed through popular films, TV shows and mangas, both for comedic and dramatic effect. When used in a serious light, this posture is also known as dogeza, a sign of self-abasement used in formal apologies and to request great favors from persons of higher social status.
According to Wikipedia, the emoticon was first used in late 2002 on the Japanese website Techside’s FAQ Forum. On the forum, a poster asked about a cable cover typing “＿|￣|○” to show a cable and its cover. Others commented that it looked like a kneeling person, and the symbol became popular. These comments were soon deleted as they were considered off-topic. However, one of the first corresponding reactions can be found on the thread in Techside Chitchat Forum (Techside一言板。) dating back to December 23th, 2002.
The ASCII-art prototype “＿|￣|○” subsequently spread across the Japanese blogs and forums like Futaba Channel and Nico Nico Douga, where it became used as a humorous way of conveying frustration or despair. Soon, the emoticon evolved into other variant formats, most notably OTL and Orz.
Beginning in 2003, The emoticon entered usage on the Korean web through the imageboard site DCInside, where the concept of “orz” quickly evolved into an image macro phenomenon depicting various characters kneeling in remorse with the caption “Despair Not Allowed” (좌절금지). It also began to spread on the Chinese web around the same time, as reported by the Chinese portal site Baidu.
By a number of accounts, the “orz” emoticon was likely introduced to the English-speaking web through the anonymous imageboard site 4chan, where there was a large influx of Japanese internet memes due to its affinity with the Japanese imageboard Futaba Channel (2chan). Following the rise of “FAIL” phenomenon on 4chan, the emoticon also became associated with Epic Fail Guy.
Usage in Western Culture
The earliest known reference to “orz” on the English web can be found in an Urban Dictionary definition entry submitted on May 10th, 2004:
It is a Japanese based emoticon of a man pounding his head on the floor. The o is the head. The r is the arms. The z is the legs. Used to symbolize the emotion of frustration.
On February 8th, 2005, BoingBoing published an article explaining the far-reaching phenomenon of “orz” in Far East, citing its usage in Japan, China and Korea.