The week of June 5, 2016

How to speak meme

By Miles Klee

Every subculture has its slang, perfectly suited to its own needs and tailored to keep outsiders at a comfortable remove. Over time, this vernacular becomes an efficient means of identification within the clique; communities want to know at a glance who belongs and who does not—especially in the crowded and disjointed space of the internet.

Anyone lurking the meme feeds of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Instagram will at once notice that this self-selecting group of digital creators and archivists are almost uniquely disposed to mutant language. It is, along with the basically anti-comedic humor prevalent in these circles, perhaps the largest hurdle for a meme novice to overcome. A few terms are obvious devolutions of basic English terms (dogs become “doggos,” and puppies “puppers”), while certain initialisms (“omg” and “smh” and “lol”) are common enough elsewhere. More difficult to parse are the words whose meanings you think you already know. 

Therefore, while acknowledging that this is a doomed endeavor insofar as any glossary of transient, ever-changing vocabulary would be, we present this guide to idiomatic memespeak. Some of these newer expressions are surely on the way out, while several older ones have demonstrated unusual staying power—but all of them, at one point or another, carried deep connotative power. Beware, however, of deploying a piece of jargon that seems to be in vogue. Any usage of these phrases as defined can still invite derision and abuse, since infighting about the basic parameters of meme culture is itself a vital aspect of the culture.

aesthetic (n.) Sure, “aesthetic” can refer to a general palette of visual or artistic appeal, but when meme kids say it, they typically mean pastel neon, pre-1999 graphics, Japanese text, and vaporwave music. Which is to say, one very specific aesthetic.

areferential (adj.) Where Generation X was perfectly content to quote The Simpsons at each other ad infinitum, the meme generation wants content without stable reference points. The ideal answer to the question “Where’s that meme from?” is “Nowhere.”

autistic (adj.) Because much of meme culture is a hangover from 4chan’s heyday, its hardcore proponents retain some of the message board’s unfortunate penchant for heavily stigmatized epithets—in this case, the suggestion of a mental/social disorder. One is generally branded “autistic” for improperly processing advanced irony, behaving obsessively, or reacting to provocation with anything other than detached amusement (and sometimes even for that). More broadly, it conveys a lack of understanding of memes. N.B. the noun form: “autist.”

ayy lmao (interj.) Originally associated with fake-looking aliens, this phrase, which includes the popular initialism “lmao” for “laughing my ass off,” has come to signify a sarcastic, almost rueful laughter as compared to a standalone “lmao.”

af (adv.) “As fuck.”

bae (n.) Yeah, yeah, even your grandmother knows what “bae” means. But more than just a significant other, “bae” has come to signify any beloved—in any form.

cancer (n.) Just as memes “go viral”—though no one really says that anymore, do they?—misinterpretations of or misinformation about their provenance and significance can metastasize in the internet corpus, causing untold damage. Such “cancer” spreads through social media channels, corrupting and killing memes. This glossary could be considered a prime example. Though, as with “autistic,” “cancer” is mostly just a synonym for “bad.”

cuck (n.) Shortened form of “cuckold” popularized by Donald Trump supporters attacking his Republican rivals (or “cuckservatives”), and perhaps the most intriguing recent example of appropriated slang. An insult that hints at the target’s impotence and air of denial.

daddy (n.) A loaded, sexual term of endearment that expresses deference to a dominant, appealing, typically male character. BDSM overtones, though occasionally used in semi-platonic admiration.

dank (adj.) Essentially the opposite of “autistic” or “cancer,” anything “dank” is accepted as good, funny, important, and smart. Qualities which, in the meme scene, strongly correlate to obscurity and originality—and, not uncommonly, sheer incomprehensibility.

dead (adj.) When a meme has reached the “normies” (see below), it is “dead,” done, kaput, and of no further use to the meme vanguard. One can also declare oneself “dead” if one finds a dank meme incapacitatingly hilarious, while the meme elite, isolated and alienated from all but their screens, often describe themselves as “dead inside.”

edgy (adj.) While “edginess” has long been associated with a kind of dangerous cool, “edgy” in current parlance functions as a sardonic put-down. After all, nothing can shock a true connoisseur of the internet.

it me/me IRL/same (interj.) There are, to be sure, various nuances differentiating the uses of “it me,” “me IRL,” and “same,” but in practice, they are virtually interchangeable. Each is a mode of reaction to an especially relatable meme, and each says “I too have felt this mood or state of mind.”

fam (n.) Short for “family,” assimilated from the lexicon of Black Twitter, most notably observed in the sales pitches of SoundCloud rappers (“Check out my mixtape, fam.”) Your entire collection of online friends and followers may be considered fam, though the word can also be used with an individual.

-fag (suffix) Another unfortunate 4chan holdover, the “-fag” suffix has lost most of its homophobic bile and can instead substitute for “fan” or “devotee” in connection with as in “memefag,” “Trumpfag,” and “artfag.” Problematic, as a Tumblrfag might say.

fire (adj.) Probably the closest analogue to the overplayed “viral” right now, though it also refers to a particular conflagration of “dankness.” The fire emoji is a customary equivalent. To be fire is what it once colloquially meant to be on fire. N.B. that any fire preceded by “dumpster” or “trash” is what we once called a “clusterfuck.” 

forced (adj.) Meme archivists place a high value on all-natural, organically harvested memes—again, memes that seem to come from nowhere. Memes that appear to originate from impure, untrusted sources—or engender a suspicious amount of repetition, as if someone is trying too hard to make the joke stick—are “forced.”

heck off (v.) A charmingly and awkwardly softened version of “fuck off.”

irony (n.) A rhetorical strategy by which one manages to say the opposite of what one means. In the context of memes, that just means that nothing should be taken at face value and no one is ever quite sure how earnest anyone else is being, nor of any intended subtext.

lit (adj.) If music and memes can be fire, then parties and communities can be “lit,” which is to say marked by boisterous, enjoyable, and sometimes outlandish activity.

mad (adj.) Someone is “mad” online if they can be proved to have any demonstrable stake in anything whatsoever.

meme (n.) Any discrete or replicable piece of (audio)visual content that can be packaged in the confines of a website or social media account—and, therefore, explained or argued about.

mom/dad (n.) Because willed immaturity is part and parcel of the meme life, certain respected public figures can be designated as “mom” or “dad,” depending on gender.

no chill (n.) Though one cannot exactly possess “chill,” the aspect of unruffled, ambivalent calm, one can be said to have “no chill” if one persists in endless trolling, antagonism, or other malicious endeavors. In other words, you can’t leave well enough alone.

normie (n.) Normies are the meme elite’s sworn enemies, and guess what? If you’re reading this glossary, you fit the bill. Another fitting definition of the “normie” is anyone who uses their real name or face on social media (rather than tweeting from anonymous accounts with anime avatars) and has an active LinkedIn account. The normie is someone who uses the internet for practical, tawdry tasks like banking or booking hotels, with no deeper understanding or appreciation for memes, and their involvement in a meme’s life cycle can only hasten an already speedy demise. Normies also constitute the vast, mainstream majority of people online, which contributes to meme kids’ stated grief over their corrupting touch and pervasiveness. When the meme revolution comes, the normies will be first against the wall. 

post- (prefix) Just as music genres and human epochs are defined by what they came after (“post-punk,” “post-industrial”), memes and meme aesthetics are perceived to follow from previous meme movements.

rare (adj.) A peculiar quirk in the so-called meme economy is the rule of scarcity. Because dank memes are so “rare” and endangered, their discovery by the normies is all the more devastating. Those who can reliably dig up rare memes to share with their fam, meanwhile, are a noble breed.

roast (v.) To mercilessly and endlessly mock someone or something. If a roast is successful enough, it may become a group effort, or even go on for months.

salty (adj.) Even though they can occasionally turn nasty, most meme wars are all in good, pointless fun, conducted between many tenacious devil’s advocates. Woe to the participant who turns “salty,” either going on the extreme defensive or attempting more personal wounds because they are genuinely pissed or feel they’ve been made to look foolish.

shitpost (n. or v.) A “shitpost” can take many forms, but by and large, it is a meme or reaction to same that is poorly articulated, unintelligent, useless, redundant, deliberately offensive, or a transparent attempt to derail a thread. The variant, “shitlord,” applied to shitposting people, carries stronger hints of bigotry.

-wave (suffix) Any concept can become a genre or aesthetic with “-wave” attached.

whom (pron.) — Purposeful perversion of “who,” skewering the pretensions of proper grammar, for which the meme crew has little use.

woke (adj.) To be “woke,” again per the black communities where the term gained cachet, is to be aware of the wider world in its countless intricacies—and of what’s truly important in society. Memes, then, by their very nature, can pretty much never be woke.

Photos via S. Faric/Flickr, Chris Lott/Flickr & DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed