Last year, the YouTube channel Aperture published a video highlighting the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies of English grammar and vocabulary, such as the fact that comb, tomb and bomb don’t rhyme. Interesting as the content is, perhaps more striking is the title: “The english language is a giant meme..” Ten — or maybe fewer — years ago, this sentence wouldn’t have made much sense to the vast majority of native English speakers. Even today, some of us may need to watch some of the video to understand that meme should be taken to mean something comically absurd. Obviously, that’s not the dictionary definition of the term (not yet, anyway), but an elaboration of it, likely stemming from the outrageous, farcical quality that many viral sensations share — think of figures like rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine and Joe Exotic of Tiger King fame, both of whom have been described in the media as “human memes.”
According to Merriam-Webster, the word meme was first applied to a humorous digital file spread via the Internet in a 1998 CNN interview, in which Wired News staff writer Janelle Brown used it in reference to a 3-D rendering of a baby dancing the cha-cha. This is probably its most widely-known sense today, although precisely what constitutes a meme remains up for debate: unedited screenshots of tweets are circulated rapidly between social networks just as the Dancing Baby was in the ’90s, but the rules of the popular subreddit r/memes state that “Someone saying something funny on twitter/tumblr/reddit/etc. is not a meme.” In the early 2010s, your understanding of Internet meme might have been a picture with white top and bottom text written in Impact typeface, but changing tastes have rendered this template passé, and the word is now more commonly used to describe an image macro presented in one of many other formats. Of course, meme can also go well beyond the pictorial. The OED gives the term a wide berth, stating that it can be an “image, video, [or] piece of text, etc.”, while linguist Adrian Lou asserts that it can also be extended to hashtags, video challenges, and characters.
Meme is older than the Internet, however. It was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, where it was defined as a noun which “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”, and had been absorbed into the jargon of academics known as “memeticists” by the 1990s (in fact, prior to 1998, pretty much the only texts in which you’d find the word were scholarly articles). But even in this context, the exact definition of meme is disputable — some memeticists believe that it signifies information as it materialises in the brain (this is known as the “internalist” position), while others (“externalists”) argue that memes are cultural objects, like images. The 21st-century understanding of the concept derives from the latter description, though limiting its scope considerably, as Dawkins himself has pointed out (this hi-jacking of his coinage doesn’t seem to bother him, however; rather, he’s “quite amused by it”).
Anyway, who cares about the etymology of meme? Well, I want to show you something. Consider this:
The author of this image presupposes quite a few things about the viewer’s prior knowledge. Let’s take it for granted that you understand the idea of Facebook friend requests, and can competently interpret the facial expressions of the man on the right. In this case, you are capable of deducing the basic premise of this “story” — a man is notified of four new Facebook users attempting to connect with him, receives the news with enthusiasm, sees who the users are, and grimaces. Yet something is missing. In order to make sense of this reaction, you must also be able to recognise the four dapper men pictured in the bottom left panel. They are, in case you really didn’t know, the “Dancing Pallbearers”, a group of Ghanaian men who rose to fame in 2017 after footage of them simultaneously shouldering a coffin and dancing went viral.
Even still, that’s not enough information for you to be able to fully appreciate why the meme is funny, or even coherent. Why should receiving friend requests from these performers provoke feelings of concern, even alarm, as it appears to do here? What this meme demands is not just familiarity with the source material, but with the way it has recently been appropriated and remixed in Internet culture. TikTok users have set the footage to high-octane EDM and edited it to immediately follow video clips of people injuring themselves or about to undertake a dangerous task, implying by way of juxtaposition that the occupier of the coffin is the subject of the footage we’ve just seen (analogous to, for example, a smash cut to a tombstone after someone lying in a hospital bed slowly closes their eyes in a movie). This particular usage of the clip has become exceedingly popular over the course of the pandemic, often as a means of pointing out the risks associated with certain behaviours like assembling in large groups, and was even co-opted by Donald Trump in an infamous Snapchat post lampooning his Democratic opponent. As a result, the very image of the pallbearers has taken on a new meaning — they’ve become a quartet of grim reapers. Only with this knowledge can we fill in the missing gaps in the story: the man is alarmed because he has foreseen his own death.
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.
It should be noted that, since memes can also be pieces of text, there is something of an overlap between actual language and “the language of memes.” Boomer, a clipping of baby boomer and a once relatively neutral term for anyone born in the twenty-or-so-year period following WWII, has now become a derisive term for basically any out-of-touch individual older than Gen Y via its use in the phrase “OK boomer”, which began life as a frequently-spouted retort in Twitter replies and Reddit comments and has since been bandied about in New Zealand parliament. This is where we see the crossover between the popular and the academic interpretations of meme — memeticists consider all words to be examples of memes, as they are, essentially, ideas transmitted from person to person through culture (i.e. a word has the same potential to “go viral” as a cat video). Language, too, is technically a kind of meme, meaning that the title of Aperture’s video is accurate in more ways than one.
In its strictest sense, language is the most sophisticated sign system we have. Though we may metaphorically refer to things like gestures and facial expressions, music, and mathematics as kinds of “languages”, nothing really comes close to verbal (including signed) language in terms of how elaborate its structures and nuanced its messages can be. Yet, as we’ve seen, it seems as though Internet memes are catching up. If you’re thinking, “Yes, well, we’re hardly going to see entire books written using only memes, are we?”, you might be interested to read about Milk and Vine, the bestselling “poetry” collection containing nothing but quotes from well-known clips published on the now-defunct video platform Vine. No, it’s hardly a Mark Twain novel, but it’s one step in a strange new direction. Given how (sometimes terrifyingly) creative meme-makers can be, we shouldn’t be surprised if, come next spring, bookshelves are stacked with copies of a Ulysses-grade tome whose pages are awash with nothing but Dancing Pallbearers and Pepe the Frog.