What Does “FOMO” Mean, and How Do You Use It?


The word FOMO presented in big, bold, neon letters.
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FOMO is one of the few internet acronyms that has wiggled its way into psychology papers, the evening news, and every college counseling office in America. But what does FOMO mean, where’d it come from, and how do you use it?

Fear of Missing Out

FOMO is simply an acronym for “fear of missing out.” It’s a term that’s used to describe the anxiety of missing out on opportunities. Usually, feelings of FOMO are accompanied by the idea that someone else (friends, family, or coworkers) is taking part in the opportunity that you’re missing out on. It’s a bit like being “in the know” or keeping up with the Joneses.

FOMO is usually used to describe social situations. You may experience FOMO when you can’t go to a cool party or a concert with your friends, for example. For this reason, FOMO carries a very teenage or childish connotation, and the word crops up in just about every news article about millennials. (Psychologists and market researchers especially love the term.)

But FOMO is sometimes used to describe the fear of missing professional or “life” opportunities, like getting a degree, retiring before your 70th birthday, buying into stocks, or getting a promotion. It isn’t exclusively a “youth” phenomena, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use FOMO to describe “serious,” non-social situations.

Etymology

Oddly enough, we have a decent idea of where the word FOMO came from. It seems the word was first put to paper in a 2004 edition of a Harvard Business School’s student paper, The Harbus, by a student named Patrick McGinnis.

In his article, McGinnis describes two opposing but intertwined forces: FOMO and FOBO. We already know that FOMO is the fear of missing out, and its use in McGinnis’ article carries the same social connotations that it does today. But McGinnis designates FOBO (fear of a better option) toward the idea of commitment. People suffering from FOBO may be reluctant to solidify plans, for fear that a better opportunity may appear at the last second.

A man interacts with social media accounts on his laptop.
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In McGinnis’ article, FOMO and FOBO culminate toward an existential dead-end: FODA (fear of doing anything). When people are afraid of missing opportunities (FOMO) while simultaneously being afraid of commitment (FOBO), the result is social catatonia.

In a Boston Magazine article from 2014, Ben Schreckinger theorizes these acronyms were birthed from the circumstances of the late 1990s/early 2000s (9/11, the dot-com burst, the emergence of cellphones). But the word didn’t enter the common vernacular until the 2010s, when (according to psychologists) the feeling was growing among young people due to social media and internet use.

How Do You Use FOMO?

“How do you use FOMO” isn’t an empowering, existential inquiry. It’s simply a question of semantics. When do you use FOMO in a sentence? Is it appropriate to say FOMO to your boss, or will internet teenagers make fun of you for saying FOMO?

Let’s start with the grammar. Unlike “LOL,” it’s hard to intuitively stick FOMO into a sentence. That’s because, grammar-wise, the word FOMO has a ton of flexibility. You can use it directly in place of “fear of missing out,” or you can use FOMO as a noun, as if FOMO is a devil on your shoulder forcing you to feel anxiety or dread. And, of course, you can use FOMO as a funny internet word that breaks minor grammatical rules.

A man stares at his laptop, wondering if now's the time to finally say FOMO.
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Here are a few examples of FOMO’s grammatical flexibility:

  • In Place of “Fear of Missing Out”
    • “I have a cold, but my deep-seated FOMO made me come to this party.”
    • “His FOMO was too much to deal with, so he drove 2,000 miles to come to this concert.”
  • As a Noun
    • “FOMO made me come to this party even though I have a cold.”
    • “Blame FOMO; that’s why he drove all the way to this concert.”
  • As a Funny Internet Word
    • “I have a cold, but I came to this party because FOMO.”
    • “Why’d he drive so far for this concert? Because FOMO, dummy!”

Now that you know how to use FOMO in a sentence, you can start worrying about when to use the word. You should use FOMO only to describe a situation where someone is anxious about missing out on an opportunity. Again, this term usually applies to social situations (you can’t go to a cool party), but you can also use it to describe serious or professional situations (you and your coworkers stay late at work to pursue a promotion).

And don’t worry, kids won’t make fun of you for saying FOMO. It’s not really a trendy word or a meme, it’s just a modern descriptor for an age-old feeling that’s been amplified by social media. That said, your boss will probably think you’re childish for saying FOMO in a serious situation, so, you know, avoid doing that.


If you’re reading this article because of your personal internet-induced FOMO, it may be worth looking into some other freaky internet words. Words like “TL;DR” and “Yeet” are commonly used on social networks and in news articles, and understanding their meaning can save you from some FOMO down the road.





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