A man makes a happy face with "TFW" superimposed in front of him
Ranta Images/Shutterstock.com

TFW is an internet acronym that you’ll usually find on social networking sites and in memes all over the web. But what does TFW mean, where did the acronym come from, and how do you use it?

That Feel When (or That Face When?)

TFW is an internet acronym that stands for “that feel when.” This acronym is usually accompanied by a funny or emotive picture (like the one featured above), and it’s used to provide emotional context or commentary to a situation.

In a way, TFW is more like a meme than an actual acronym you use in a sentence, like FOMO. It usually follows a strict format, where a sentence beginning with TFW is often (but not always) accompanied by an emotive photo. This sentence can be relevant to your life, like “TFW your bathroom floods,” or it could simply be a joke, like “TFW your friends also know about Pennywise the clown.”

That’s not to say that TFW always follows a strict meme format. On its own, TFW indicates to readers that a message or post contains an emotional context. So, it’s possible for “TFW” to mean something on its own without being accompanied by a picture or messages.

So in some cases, you might reply to a ridiculous or hateful Facebook with a basic “TFW.” People who know what TFW means should understand that you’re saying “this post is absolutely bonkers!” Similarly, you could reply to an unexpected message from an ex with “TFW,” or reply to a funny photo with “TFW.”

Etymology of TFW

Some people swear that TFW actually stands for “that face when.” And in a way, they might be right.

Back in 2009, people on the 4chan music board (called /mu/) started saying “MFW,” or “my face when.” Oddly enough, MFW was used in the same way that TFW is used today. People would post a funny photo of a face along with a sentence like “MFW people call chess a sport.”

an image of the Google Trends page for "tfw" and "mfw."
Google Trends shows that use of MFW peaked after 2010 and has since been overtaken by TFW. Google Trends

Around this same time, the word “feel” developed as slang for the word “feeling.” Memes like “I know that feel bro” started to spread across the internet, and the “Feels Guy” reaction image became a common piece of internet and nerd culture.

Like MFW, the Feels Guy meme was used to respond to emotional situations. But while MFW usually conveyed disgust or awe, the Feels Guy meme was used to describe a feeling of shame, doubt, sadness, or emasculation.

A photo of the Feels Guy.
Recognize this face? It’s the old Feels Guy. Know Your Meme

Evidently, these two similar ideas merged to become TFW in 2010 or 2011—that’s when TFW was first properly defined on the Urban Dictionary. While the grammatical usage of TFW hasn’t changed much since then, the word has become a lot broader. It’s a useful acronym for expressing emotions on the internet, a place that’s notorious for its emotional opacity.

RELATED: What Does "TLDR" Mean, and How Do You Use It?

How Do You Use TFW?

If you throw TFW at the beginning of a sentence, readers will intuitively look for emotional context. You could say “TFW there’s no bologna in the fridge,” or “TFW you’re almost home and the low fuel light comes on.” Either way, people will try to pull emotional meaning from the sentences.

While you could use these sentences on their own, TFW works best when accompanied with a photo or GIF. You could technically use any photo, but it’s best to use photos of emotive faces. The more emotion in the photo, the easier it is for people to gauge the correct emotional context from your use of TFW.

A man stares at his laptop, wondering how to use TFW.
TFW you find a cool new word but don’t know how to use it. fizkes/Shutterstock.com

As mentioned earlier, you can also use TFW without any accompanying words or photos. Just make sure that the situation has an obvious emotional context first. While a lone “TFW” is a conversation about dogs doesn’t make much sense, replying “TFW” to an annoying or mean-spirited text message can communicate an idea like “get out of my inbox” or “how do you expect me to respond to this?”

TFW you find a whole new world of freaky internet words. If you’re just catching up with some of the language that’s commonly found online, check out our articles on words like TLDR and YEET.

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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