What Do You Meme?

How Internet memes are becoming as powerful as language itself

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(THEWORLD / Memedroid)

21st-century hieroglyphics

There is a parallel to be drawn between the development of words — like meme — and the ever-evolving usage of images, videos, music, and soundbites in Internet culture. Show the above picture to your grandmother and see if she can make head or tail of it; ditto for the sentence “The English language is a giant meme.” It’s an old cliché that a picture paints a thousand words, but the creators and propagators of memes take visual imagery, as well as other forms of media, to a whole new level of versatility. Memes have been compared to hieroglyphics in that some of them can be presented unaccompanied by any verbal signs whatsoever and still communicate a clear message — certain iterations of other comic strip-esque formats like the Persuadable Bouncer are proof of this. But the similarities between memes and language don’t end there. There is, in both cases, a so-called “correct” way to use them, and the extremely online cringe at brands’ misappropriation of memes just as English teachers cringe at the sight of “should of” in a student’s essay. The smallest units of meaning in language are called morphemes, many of which can’t stand alone (think of the un- in unreliable or the -ed in walked). Likewise, some memes are made up of multiple units that convey meaning but generally can’t appear in isolation, like “Drake approves” panel from the Hotline Bling meme. Compound words like doghouse (or, alternatively, portmanteaus like mansplain) correspond to what you could call “compound memes” — combinations of two pre-existing gags, as in “Woman Yelling at a Cat.” And, just as memes can be carved out of an individual’s likeness without their consent, words have been coined in honour — or in spite — of real-life people, such as the 13th-century Scottish philosopher John Duns, from whose name we get the word dunce.

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Drake prefers one “Red” album over another. (maddiememes / imgflip)

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Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literary Studies in Belgium. clarech.carrd.co

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