Learned Vol. 2, Issue 9
"They don't think it be like it is, but it do."
Depending on who you read, Oscar Gamble gave the above response to a question about either racism in baseball or the ongoing chaos in the Yankees' management. Either way, over forty years later, the phrase has taken on new life as a meme, itself a (relatively) new form of modern folklore.
So, what does this have to do with Learned?
With Volume 2, I decided to write about the phrases and idioms that we (English speakers) utter on a daily basis but may not actually know the origins of, much less the original meaning and context. So far, that's what we've (you and I, Reader) done. But, I realized that I was missing a huge portion of the modern lexicon, those neologisms and coinings that become ensconced in culture to the point that they become codified in the English language as an idiom, just like so many other phrases do. So, with this post, I'm adding "memes," and specifically "internet memes" to the list of things we'll talk about during this run of Learned.
In 1999, I got a job with a dot com in the bustling Seattle job market. I arrived to work every morning, fired up my internet connection, and then proceded to surf the nascent internet for an hour before turning on my phone and actually doing my job. One of my favorite sites to visit (and one that has long since disappeared) was called Memepool.
Here's a snapshot from May 20, 2000 courtesy of Archive.org:
As you can see, Memepool kept to a simple format: new posts appeared with either a white or grey background, were short, and contained a handful of links to various other places on the net. It was awesome. What it was not, however, was the host of memes as we think of them today.
A Google Search for "meme."
The word meme comes from a 1976 book called The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. From Wikipedia:
A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
And now we go to Wikipedia's definition of "internet meme:"
An Internet meme...is an activity, concept, catchphrase, or piece of media that spreads, often as mimicry or for humorous purposes, from person to person via the Internet.
So far, so good, but:
An Internet meme usually takes the form of an image (traditionally an image macro), GIF or video. It may be just a word or phrase, sometimes including intentional misspellings, (such as in lolcats) or corrupted grammar, as in doge and "All your base are belong to us". These small movements tend to spread from person to person via social networks, blogs, direct email, or news sources. They may relate to various existing Internet cultures or subcultures, often created or spread on various websites.
Taken together, this shows how a memorable phrase like they don't think it be like it is, but it do changes from a bit of information spread from person to person because of its inherent value as a piece of commentary to a funny picture which uses the phrase as a comedic counter-point.
Scholarly books are already being written about the rise of memes and their effects upon information technology and culture; truthfully, I expect it won't be too many more years before I have an Oxford Dictionary of Memes to sit alongside my Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins and The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. And, honestly, I don't know how to feel about that.
The word “meme” can function as both a noun and a verb. As a noun, a meme is a piece of information that is replicated in a manner similarly to genes in a DNA sequence. As a verb, to meme means to take one of those pieces of information and format it so that it can be, and hopefully, will be replicated many times.
Notable Events of the Year 1975
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Further reading about Oscar Gamble and how things be.
Next Time: We’re not in Kansas anymore. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.