The Language of Memes: A Brief Explanation

Do you have any idea what this picture means just by looking at it? Yes, it’s some guy claiming there is free real estate to be had, but what does it all mean? This is something that can only be understood by someone well-versed in the language of memes.

There are many memes that can be easily understood by someone who is not a meme-lord, like many of the memes from 2012, back when everyone was just being introduced to them. Example A:

Memes from 2012 were just funny pictures with blocky white text over them, designed to make people smile. They’re easily understandable, oftentimes relatable, and were easy to create. Memes in 2018 are strange. If you didn’t jump on the bandwagon at the beginning stages of a meme, you’ll more than likely not be able to understand the same meme at a later stage of its evolution. For example:

Here we have a beginning stage “Despacito 2” meme.

Here we have the same meme, but it has evolved into something undecipherable unless you have already seen the “Markiplier E/Lord Farquaad” meme. This is also an example of what I refer to as “cross memes”. It is where two memes or more are mashed together to make an image that doesn’t make sense unless you are familiar with all memes involved.

2012 memes were very self-sustaining. They only relied on the picture and the text that went with the picture. Memes that are popular today are usually dependent on people already knowing what something is before seeing it incorporated into the meme. Like this one:

To understand this, you have to know what Дpyг is, and beyond that you have to know that it’s actually a Deathclaw from Fallout. This particular meme is also “deep fried”, which is why the actual image of Дpyг looks so messed up and its eyes are glowing (all deep fried memes people’s eyes glow).

Taking a step back from deep fried memes and cross memes, let’s talk about how there are some phrases from the 80s that many people today would not understand, like, “gag me with a spoon”, or “bag your face”. This can be compared to the recent trend of “oh, worm?”. When I read that, I know exactly what it means, but I had to Google what “bag your face” meant. We are two sides of the same coin, you non-memers and us meme-lords.

There are actually college classes over the art of memes, which may sound kind of silly (it really kind of is), but if you think about it, the language of memes is complex. It has been carefully curated over the years while also adapting to the world around us, both constantly changing. Memes are a reflection of society, and the memes that you as an individual enjoy or laugh at are a reflection of you, as well. So, be careful which memes you find funny. Don’t end up like me, because I literally laugh at things like this every single day:

This is my life now. I’ve accepted it.

Do any of you have a favorite meme? Do you despise memes with a burning passion? Let me know in the comments! And as always, have a great day!

38 Comments on “The Language of Memes: A Brief Explanation”

  1. I feel so old all of a sudden. I’m just gonna go back to my cave and look at stick figure drawings of aliens and UFOs.

  2. My god this stuff is dreary. Athena, I’m curious — do you know what the word “meme” meant when Richard Dawkins first popularized it, over 40 years ago? (Thomas Huxley had the same basic idea in the 19th century.) It was a more useful and interesting concept than this silliness.

    I still prefer for people to use their words. You gave a good clear explanation, though, so thank you. This stuff will be fascinating for future sociologists (who will probably be AIs studying our extinct species).

  3. I spend a lot of time on the internets with a lot of different people, so I’m googling things all the time. I end up on the “Know Your Meme” site so often I should just bookmark it, lol.

  4. Oh, hey, learning time. If we can take Medium blog posts as truth (and I see no reason why we can’t) then what we have here is a brief discussion of memes moving at a rapid clip from the modernism of circa 2012 straight through to the post-post-modernism of today. (

    That is to say, circa 2012 an image macro (hereafter: meme) was a self-contained unit that tried to be exactly what it was- a cat-photo-with-text might gain some humor from your exposure to past cat-photo-with-texts, but it was funny without any prior exposure, and in the manner that it was trying to be anyway. Circa 2018, though, while modernism memes (cat-photo-with-text) and post-modernism memes (“ironic” cat-photo-with-text, meant to be enjoyed in contrast to a metanarrative) still exist, of course, we’ve moved on to post-post-modernism in memes, which is the oftentimes bizarre confluence of post-irony and meta-irony.

    Post-irony is very, very context-specific, aka multiple levels of irony, often looping back around to sincerity- a cat photo that decries the excesses of capitalism by quoting Marx is: sincere, ironic because you wouldn’t expect that from a cat meme, and 2x ironic because nowadays you kinda would as it’s not the first time you’ve seen a meme do that. It’s surrealism in a context where the sincere is surreal and the surreal is sincere- posting a Wednesday Frog, my dudes on Sunday isn’t funny, because the humor is the combination of its meaninglessness and its absolute truth, not one or the other.

    Meta-irony, on the other hand, is just the teramisu of meme overlap- the combined meme of Athena’s post, whereby you don’t even understand what is going on unless you already have multiple individual levels of context. Without that context it’s not only not funny, it doesn’t even make any sense.

    2018 memes, therefore, tend to be one, the other, or both at different levels. Then repeat several thousand times a day in different permutations, and see what sticks, where “sticks” means that it inspires further memes for a short period of time. The entire 2000-2010 image meme evolution now happens on a weekly basis.

  5. As an old guy, shaking fist at clouds and yelling “Get off My Lawn! (dwells in Apt., no actual lawn), the only meme shown that I could understand was the Grumpy Cat one.

    “Know Your Meme” is a good site to bookmark, I concur.

  6. “There are actually college classes over the art of memes, which may sound kind of silly (it really kind of is)”

    I disagree. Memes are a distinct medium which could not have existed before social media. Calling this class silly is no different than calling a class on the history of comic books in at medium’s infancy silly. The class may be ahead of its time, but it’s very important these days. Already this has upended politics, where the meme functions as a combination of political pamphlet and political cartoon.

  7. I’m also incredibly fond of the language of Tumblr post tags, my current favorite being “thanks for coming to my TED talk” as the successor to flagging your own post “tl;dr”.

  8. The same kind of thing happens in filk, where you can miss whole layers of meaning if you haven’t heard the original song(s) being referenced.

  9. Memes are like graffiti. An organic expression born of cultural climate, coming not from corporations but from streets.

    I don’t like memes because I think they’re essentially unhealthy, but I do think there’s a lot to be understood about the state of modern society in the studying of memes. A scholarly book on memes would be interesting.

  10. From my admittedly very inexpert and subjective perspective, it appears that memes are mostly or entirely rooted in pop culture. That in turn means that for those of us who have spent a lifetime completely baffled by pop culture, memes are essentially a foreign language. By the time someone finishes translating/explaining a meme to the point where I kinda-sorta get it, both they and I are more than ready to just walk away from the conversation.

    Yeah, I’m old. Sometimes I think I’ve been old all my life.

  11. No, meta irony was not invented in 2018 or even in the 21st century. Not to take anything away from the creativity of meme creators.

    Great thing about most memes is they’re so ephemeral and esoteric that they can be ignored if you’re not into digging through layers of cultural graffiti. On the other hand, political memes have been weaponized by bots and deplorables, so now we’re all burdened with the job of being aware of them at least.

  12. Dear Athena,

    Ooooh, memes. I LOVE memes — Lamarckian evolution in action.

    Now you have me wondering if the meme of memes (meta-meme?) itself hasn’t evolved/mutated with time, so that “meme” means something different now than it did 20 or 40 years ago?

    There were memes when I was a kid, but people called them “catchphrases.” Unsurprisingly, they’d originate in the mass media of the time, radio or TV (back when there were only three major networks and maybe five stations in a broadcast area). Some came from advertising: the most famous one I remember from my youth (from a TV commercial for a headache remedy) was, ” Mother, PLEASE … I’d rather do it **MYSELF!** ” That totally took on a life of its own, but it didn’t mutate much. Without everyone having access to interactive mass communication, it was hard for a mutation to propagate widely.

    Some did. “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s SUPERMAN!” morphed into all kinds of variants: “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Oops (splat) — it’s a bird.” And the intentionally suggestive “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure,” advertising slogan went off in the directions you’d absolutely expect.

    But the rate of change was slow, and it was easy to trace back to the origins. Any individual meme was still a mass phenomenon.

    Now the rate of change is so rapid that, as you emphasize, a meme can go N generations down the rabbit hole before it goes dormant, where it has evolved so far and often from its source that unless you know some of the intermediate transforms you can’t fully understand it.

    This feels to me to be qualitatively different from ordinary Lamarckian evolution, where (relatively!) slow rates of mutation let a recognizable species of meme fill a large niche. It seems to me that the kind of memes you’re describing alter their nature so rapidly and radically that it’s more like a lightning bolt zigzagging through an ecological space than something growing, adapting, and populating it.

    Or I could be completely and totally bonkers. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this stuff.

    Do you… or anyone here… Have further thoughts on this? If no more than to simply tell me I am bonkers?

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  13. Wow, and here I thought that keeping mostly current with reddit would keep me up to date on the memes. And yet “Oh, worm?” was unknown to me, also “deep fried”. I’m still back on “dank” memes. And I had to look up the real estate one too.

    Where are these from, Athena? Where do you suggest is the happening place to go to keep up on the latest memeage?

  14. Note: that might not have been the exact poster I remember, but a modern re-creation. But that definitely was the kind of poster one saw everywhere in the seventies.

  15. I still not to sure what the hell a meme is
    Thought he was a actor in an Austin Powers movie.

  16. My teenage daughter and I have begun referring to this kind of internet meta-humor as “neo-Dadaist.”

  17. @karlsoap: Thanks for the rickroll.

    The meme business sometimes seems to go out of hand or be a very localized event that it covers.

    But that’s probably because “everyone” has to make one and it takes effort and luck to make a sharp one that’s new and fresh these days – a lot has already been done, and some things have taken a life of its own.

  18. Does your husband


    Grunt and grumble

    Rant and rave

    Shoot the brute some


  19. Okay, so what you’re telling me is that a) “meme” doesn’t mean what it used to mean, and b) I’m too old to understand whatever it means now.

  20. Many many years ago, I came across a fake book cover, “How to Even for Dummies”. I liked it. I thought it was the purest form of “For Dummies” parody, not like the others that invoke a known but obviously unsuitable concept for the title. I liked it, and added it to my relatively small collection of saved images.

    A few days ago, I was walking past some edgy wall-sized print ads for some whatnot, and one of them was very brief, little more than the statement “I can’t even”.

    I looked it up, and discovered it was a phrase I have missed out for quite some time now. The original cover was much better when I didn’t know that the joke was a twofer meme.

    So come to think of it, my gobsmacked flabbergastation at seeing the ad was simply my being unable to even.

  21. I have been discussing online languages with my teenage daughter a lot lately and have come to understand some things that were not immediately apparent to me. The instantaneous and constant communication her generation enjoys is so different from what any of us had when we grew up – not just in its constancy but also in form. They communicate visually, via screen, where we spoke (in person or via telephone), and to accommodate that, their written language has evolved. The “bad grammar” that I hear so many people of my generation complaining about is actually a very specific set of meaningful identifiers. (For example, capitalized words take on a different emphasis or even a different meaning from the same words left uncapitalized; a period is the equivalent of walking away from a conversation and slamming the door; multiple commas indicate that the previous word should be mentally heard with a rising, drawn-out tone of disbelief; and so on.) Memes are an essential part of that visual language, compactly describing in a single image an entire range of backstory, emotion, and current perspective on an issue. Memes do require a deep involvement in the culture generating them, but when you are constantly texting with your friends, that is apparently not hard to achieve. I think that for adults beyond a certain age, this issue may be a case of needing to learn a foreign language that is rapidly becoming an official one.

  22. My favorites were the “One Does Not Simply”…. a take on Sean Bean’s character Boromir from the Lord of the Rings movies “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” For awhile they were EVERYWHERE on the Internet, in varying degrees of awesome/crappiness. One has to only type the words in a search bar to relive this meme’s glory forever! Until our sentient robot overlords take it all away from us…

  23. *Captain America sits down*
    You think Twitter is causing the downfall of humanity

    This is a really interesting concept. I read this great book once, I forget who wrote it, about how this entire group of people who could communicate from birth via direct emotional transmission ended up with a completely different manner of interacting. In some ways they were stunted but in others they found “realborn” to be horribly slow and inefficient. You know who wrote that, by any chance?

    Joking about Ghost Brigades aside, my favorite meme has to be Orange County Choppers, which, unlike most memes, embodies VERY good argumentation techniques along the Platonic method (check out the Vox article for more

    My favorite ITERATION of the Orange County Choppers meme has to be Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, based on the seminal Star Trek The Next Generation episode “Darmok” in which the Enterprise crew has a difficult time communicating with an alien race, until they realize that the aliens SPEAK ENTIRELY IN MEMES. The episode itself is so popular that “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” has attained a meaning synonymous with memespeak. The meta-awesomeness of it just makes my little Trekkie heart happy. For reference, the episode first aired in 1991.