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How an Indonesian onomatopoeia became a dance-music sample and a meme

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The story of Om Telolet Om

marshmello Marshmello

Om Telolet Om. That three-word phrase is currently sprinkled across the Twitter mentions and Instagram comments of celebrities around the word. But what does it mean?

As Billboard points out, Om Telolet Om doesn’t quite mean anything. It’s a noise. The onomatopoeia was created by kids in Indonesia. “Telolet” is meant to represent the sound city buses make when they honk: it’s a complex, carnival-like beep. And “Om” is an Indonesian word that loosely translates to “sir.” So, as one Twitter user pointed out to The Chainsmokers, “Om Telolet Om” basically means “Sir, honk the bus, sir.” The young creators of Om Telolet Om shout the phrase and scrawl it on cardboard signs, trying to get passing bus drivers to honk at them.

At least a month after kids chanted the sound in Indonesia, it moved online, where it took hold in dance-music culture. Producers like DJ Snake and Zedd tweeted the phrase, which traveled like a game of “The Game.” At first, you don’t know what it is; when you learn, you share it, signaling you’re in on the secret. Musicians like the Dutch duo Firebeatz and Dillon Francis went further, working the goofy honking into an EDM sample.

But Om Telolet Om wasn’t an instant hit worldwide. A 22-year-old Twitter user named Vian from the Indonesian city of Semarang explained to The Verge that the phrase originated with young kids in the town of Jepara, in the Central Java province. According to The Jakarta Post, the children would stand in front of a gas station at the city’s entrance every day around 4:30 p.m. to greet the bus drivers. Vian told me it was just a simple, fun thing that kids would yell, because Om Telolet Om looks “cute” in Indonesian. From there, teenagers from Jepara started to pick it up and use it online. Vian explained locals would use it as a gleeful response when others got annoyed, and he guessed tweeting the phrase at celebrities was just a way to spread joy.

The reason Om Telolet Om rose to international prominence seems to be connected to two tangential moments:

One, a Facebook video uploaded by Jepara resident Riyadh As’ari back in November that went viral. Over Facebook, Riyadh As’ari told The Verge that after he posted the video, it started getting pickup from local television stations, and got bigger from there.

Two, the frequent use of the phrase online by teenagers in the periphery of famous people (a space created by social media) that wasn’t possible until this decade. By consistently putting Om Telolet Om where people with a big online presence would see it, Jepara’s teenagers (and the people outside the town who soon caught on) basically ensured that the meme would keep spreading.

Once embedded in dance music, Om Telolet Om traveled rapidly into the wider world of celebrity. Currently, the words pepper the comments of Instagram posts from the likes of Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, and Justin Bieber. Although musicians like Marshmello seem to have fully embraced the phrase, some seem to find its spam-like qualities frustrating. Some Om Telolet Om enthusiasts suspect the South Korean rapper Park Chanyeol has started blocking anyone who drops a “Telolet” in his mentions, though the rapper didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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In a little less than a month, it appears children in a town perched on the northern coast of Indonesia managed to turn an onomatopoeia of a bus horn into a meme, a music sample, and a greeting of joy.

Even with the help of older institutions like television, Om Telolet Om really gained traction through social media. Before DJs got involved, no one tweeting the phrase seemed to have a significant following online, but maybe Om Telolet Om’s lack of a single driving force was what helped it bubble to the surface. It was a grassroots effort with a joyful backstory, and the message was simple. After all, it was only three words long, and didn’t technically mean anything — which meant it could mean whatever you wanted it to.

But as Om Telolet Om takes hold internationally, the excitement has faltered in its birthplace of Jepara. Police known as “telolet hunters” have banned the activity because people were stopping in the street to take selfies in front of the buses, according to The Jakarta Post. Apparently bus drivers are no longer allowed to honk at bystanders shouting the phrase. As’ari told the Post, “It lasted one good month.”