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“What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’. It is information, words, instruction.”
– Richard Dawkins, 1986.
Many of you have heard the term “meme” due to the recent popularity of internet memes. However, the word “meme” has existed long before the advent of funny pictures with poorly written English emblazoned on it. Interestingly, it was Richard Dawkins who invented the word in 1976 from Greek influences. He shortened it to “meme” because he wanted the word to be a monosyllable that sounded similar to “gene”. On a related note, that means it’s pronounced “meem” similar to “gene”, not as some people say “me-me” or the French word “meme” meaning same (I can’t do accents on my keyboard, but there’s one over the first “e”).
So what is a meme? This quote from the Smithsonian is pretty good to help build an initial understanding:
Our world is a place where information can behave like human genes and ideas can replicate, mutate and evolve.
Essentially, a meme is an idea or concept that is spread from generation to generation through means that are non-genetic (transmitted via writing, visual representation, speech, gestures or any other imitable phenomena). The importance of the word meme resembling the word gene is that memes are theorised to evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to biological evolution – basically, a meme is like a gene for information. Here’s one more good quote:
A meme is an idea that behaves like a virus – that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects
– Malcolm Gladwell
Memes are powerful language tools because they can convey a vast array of inherent information with very few words (or actions/images depending on the meme). Dawkins defined a meme as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation and replication. Internet memes are the most commonly known these days, and just think of the amount of information we can get out of a few words or an image.
This badly drawn picture by itself is enough to evoke a wide range of information. It means someone who is always unsuccessful at finding companionship and is used by the victim to demonstrate his/her emotions regarding their situation. There’s a huge list of internet memes; I’m not going to go through every one of them. Internet memes are plentiful though, which dilutes their potency a bit. Here’s a stronger example: Olympics. With that one word alone, I can make you think of competitions, athletes, races, medals and an overarching theme of unity and celebration.
However, remember Gladwell’s definition. Memes mutate over time and can end up misrepresenting something, or becoming impervious to change. Folk etymology is an example of this (I’ve gone into this in my etymology posts), where people start believing that a certain idiom originated one way when in actual fact it was another (such as the “cold shoulder”). Other good examples can be found in urban myths, which persist even when scientifically proven wrong. My girlfriend’s anatomy lecturer told her that your heart stops beating when you sneeze. This has been proven false already, what’s an anatomy lecturer doing not knowing this?
Now that we understand that memes are ideas and information transmitted over time, we have to accept that memes are prone to mutation and cannot be considered fully reliable. Here’s the interesting thing though – religion is also a meme. We can see evidence of religion changing or “mutating” over time as the Church changes its public stance on certain issues (heliocentric solar system, evolution, etc.).
It’s interesting that memes are often subject to “survival of the fittest”. It is for that reason why we don’t practice human sacrifice, because that is a weak idea from an evolutionary point of view (it doesn’t promote growth). There’s a whole scientific side to memes that I didn’t get into (I was focusing more on its power as a language tool). For those of you interested in finding out more, this is a good article:
As I didn’t get to include as many idioms as I would have liked in the last post, this is a continuation on the last one.
In other news, getting Freshly Pressed in under 4 weeks of starting this blog was pretty exciting, so I did a bit of re-organising. As you can see on the left, it’s now easier to navigate to the category you’re interested in reading. I’ve made etymology its own category as I plan to go into not just expressions, but weird words and names in the future.
Without further ado, here are a few more idioms (some of these were mentioned in the comments of the previous post, to which I give my thanks and recognition; I have added a bit of research to flesh these out):
Cold Shoulder: To distance oneself from by displaying coldness or indifference.
There is some dispute over the etymology of this expression, with a commonly held belief being that visitors who overstayed their welcome at one’s house were served only a “cold shoulder of mutton”. Whilst appearing in many etymology texts, there is a noticeable lack of supporting evidence for this theory and it is thus considered “folk etymology”. The first example of this term can be found in The Antiquary (Sir Walter Scott, 1816):
The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther.
In his text, Scott uses the term “shouther” (Scottish dialect for shoulder if you were wondering) to refer to exactly that – the shoulder. There is no reference to food anywhere, though plenty of references to shoulders:
… they stood shouther to shouther.
A more compelling evidence for the common day usage of this term can be found in his later work St. Ronan’s Well (1824):
I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.
It is assumed that he coined this term himself and the phrase began appearing frequently after the 1820s.
Raining Cats and Dogs: Raining very heavily.
This one has no definitive origin, though a lot of folk etymology surrounds the phrase. Since I can’t really tell you where this expression came from, I can only speculate based on evidence.
One claim is that in the 16th century, the family pet would crawl into the thatched roof of a house to hide from the rain and would fall through the roof when the rain was heavy enough.
Another claim is that, due to the primitive drainage systems of the 17th century, sewers would spew out their contents during heavy rain, including the corpses of animals that had accumulated in them. Whilst it is unsure that the phrase came from this origin, the phenomenon itself is documented and appears in the poem Description of a City Shower (Jonathan Swift, 1710):
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,/Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood
Another possibility is the corruption of the Greek word Katadoupoi, referring to waterfalls of the Nile and reflected through the old French word catadoupe, meaning waterfall. It is suggested that there is no logical explanation, and the term simply became popular due to humour, such as other similar phrases like “raining pitchforks”.
As for me, I go by the earliest evidence we can find, found in the comedy The City Wit or the Woman Wears the Breeches (Richard Brome, 1653) where it is said:
It shall raine … Dogs and Polecats
While a polecat is not biologically a cat (feline species), it’s not hard to imagine this fact being overlooked over time. The term itself first appeared word for word in A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation (Jonathan Swift, 1738):
I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.
Based on the fact that Swift mentioned dead animals during heavy rain in his earlier poem, I’m inclined to believe that the phrase originated from this phenomena.
Sleep tight; don’t let the bed bugs bite: Sleep well
Many of you may recognise this from the old nursery rhyme (you can Google this rhyme yourself if you want it), but the meaning of the term is twofold.
First, sleep tight referred to the old beds before mattresses existed. Beds were elevated rectangular frames with ropes tied across in a weave for the sleeper to lie on. Obviously, knowing this, sleep tight refers to not having these ropes sag and drop the occupant to the floor (tight meaning the ropes were tight, in case you missed the nuance). According to historian Dr. Jerry Lee Cross, the “sleep tight” is common knowledge amongst historians as the modern bed is little over a hundred years old.
As for the bed bugs; well they exist. The scientific name for the blood sucking insect is Cimex lectularius. There were some folk practices for sleeping in a way that avoided these bed bugs from feasting on you. As the bugs are wingless, it was common practice to put cans on the bedposts with kerosene (like a moat) so that the bugs wouldn’t climb across. They also had to avoid letting their sheets touch the floor, lest the bugs climb up that way. Curiously enough, this may have programmed the sheet-floor response into us. I’m not sure how many others experience this but as soon as my blankets touch the floor I yank them back up. It’s not that I think my floor is dirty, I just don’t like my blankets on them.
Well this post got longer than I expected and it’s only three idioms but I’ll cut it short here. Tune in later for another instalment!
The English language is full of strange idioms, many of them that we use without understanding how that phrase came to being. I only have time for a few but I might add more later. Let’s take a look at them shall we?
Train of thought: The process and direction of one’s thoughts
From the early 14th century, the word “train” meant a “drawing out or delay” of something. In the mid-15th century, the word evolved to include a “retinue or procession”. The first example of the term “train of thought” was attested in the 1650s whereas the first use of the word “train” in the sense of a locomotive. As a result, the idiom “train of thought” has nothing to do with trains (the transport) and is more likely to derive from a “delay” of a “procession” of “thought” (hence losing your train of thought).
Cup of Joe: Coffee
There are a few theories on this one. I’ll talk about the two most popular ones here.
The first is attributed to Secretary of the US Navy, Josephus Daniels (1862-1948), for banning all US Navy ships from serving alcoholic beverages. As a result, sailors resorted to the next strongest drink: coffee.
The second is a reference to a “cup of jamoke” as coffee is a compound of Java and Mocha. The term jamoke has been used in popular culture before, hence a “cup of joe” being derived from a “cup of jamoke”.
Beat About/Around the Bush: To avoid getting to the point
The earliest example of this term was recorded around 1440 in the poem Generydes – A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas.
Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.
This anonymous poem exists only as a single handwritten manuscript in the library of the Trinity College and Cambridge. The implication of this was that it was worse to “bete the bussh” than to “take the byrdes”. The next earliest example of the modern day phrasing of the term can be found in George Gascoigne’s Works, 1572.
He bet about the bush, whyles other caught the birds.
Technically, the correct phrase, if you stick to the origins of the word, would be “beat about the bush” but the incorrect US version took over in around 1980 so now most people say “beat around the bush”.
Gung Ho: Over-enthusiastic attitude towards doing something
This word was adapted from the Chinese military motto meaning “work together” (the word being kung ho). Lt. Col. Evans Carlson used this term frequently during World War II, where he would hold gung-ho meetings for his troops. They would discuss their problems and orders at these meetings. The expression became even more popular after the movie Gung Ho! in 1943 depicting a marine who did everything it took to get the job done.
Take the cake: Taking a prize symbolising victory or success
While it is widely believed that the phrase originated from the strutting competition known as the “cake-walk” in which the winner would have been said to have “taken the cake”, where cake was often the prize. This was popular within the black community of Southern USA in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, this expression has existed since the early 5th century BC where the Greeks used “take the cake” as a symbol for taking the prize. In 420 BC Aristophanes wrote “The Knights” (a criticism of the powerful Athenian politician Cleon).
If you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours.
The term “take the biscuit” is used the same way.
Early bird (takes the worm): Opportunity goes to those that are prepared
This is a tough one; the first recorded example can be found in John Ray’s A collection of English proverbs 1670, 1678.
The early bird catcheth the worm.
However, this suggests that the word was already in popular usage.
EDIT: I’ve added a part 2 with another three idioms.
People on the internet have been alternating between excessive incorrect usage of the word swag and frustrating confusion over its meaning. And no, those stupid acronyms aren’t funny or accurate. I’m here to shed some light.
The English definition of the word swag is an ornamental arrangement of flowers, fruit and greenery. So yes, from a linguistics point of view, the little kids online posting swag pictures sound very stupid now.
Forgive me the shoddy work, I was too lazy to open Photoshop so I did this with an online editor. Anyway, swag can also be slang for loot, promotional items or a bundle of belongings.
These days, swag has taken on a new meaning that is roughly encapsulated by the synonyms “attitude” and “style”. However, I have seen some ridiculous usages of the word swag that not only violate their English definition, but also have nothing to do with their new “definition”.
As for how the word came to be used in this way, I’m not absolutely certain but based on my understanding, it originated from the LA style dance scene in which studio dancers would compliment their peers on having “swag”, as well as by throwing kicks and caps at them, which was basically the shortened form of swagger (moving with attitude and confidence). I heard this term used frequently when I started getting into LA style about four or five years ago, which (I think) pre-dates the incorrect usage of the word now. Keep in mind, LA dancers were probably using that word long before I started getting into it, so I’m quite certain this is the origin of the contemporary usage of “swag”.
Now, how did the word spread outside of the dance scene? Hip hop artists like Chris Brown sometimes associate with LA dancers. Ian Eastwood choreographed for “Cat Daddy” (that’s what he told us at his workshop anyway) and I’m sure many other dancers frequently work behind the scenes for singers. In addition to dancing, they adopted the LA style’s clothing and eventually, their language. That includes the word swag. These hip hop artists then spread the word “swag” to the mainstream through their music. As we all know, the mainstream comprises of 99.99% impressionable idiots lacking any sense of their own identity, and as a result, they were all quick to jump on the “cool wagon” like ignorant, mindless zombies.
Now, I profess to using the word swag in its new definition too, but that’s only because I use it in a street dance sense. I don’t want to sound like a self-entitled prick but I think I’m allowed to use it more than some kid who uses it as an excuse to drop out of school, knock up some girl, work a minimum wage job to pay for her and the child, get divorced because it’s too tough and pay child support, bounce between minimum wage jobs for the rest of his adult life, and die a lonely man. Oh, but a lonely man with “swag”, apparently.
Recently, any 9gag post featuring the usage of the word “America” to represent the United States of America and “American” to refer to a person from aforementioned States has been met with a lot of tears, frustration and broken hearts in the comment sections. This could very likely be an internet-wide phenomenon, but 9gag is the only place where I really read comments (because there are so many idiots there it’s amusing).
Well, I’m here to end this crap.
These arguments usually revolve around something along the lines of “America is not a country, [insert profanity and remove appropriate punctuation], it’s a continent”. Wow that’s dumb. America is less a continent than it is a country. In short, using the word “America/American” to describe the US and its inhabitants is perfectly correct – and I’ll proceed to prove it to you.
Ok, so here’s some history. The term “America” was first featured on one of
four five (as of July 4, the fifth was found in a German university library) maps of German cartographer Martin Waldseemueller, who died in 1522. At the time, it was used to mark a boomerang shaped strip of land that is now modern-day Brazil. Here’s a picture for reference.
That’s America there on the right. If you don’t believe me, Google it yourself. Anyway, it should be pretty obvious that there’s more to South America (and indeed North America) than what is shown there. Over time, the term “America” became used to describe the “New World”, which pretty much just included the Americas (gasp, there’s a hint!) and sometimes Australasia. This was mainly due to the expanding of the geographical horizon that existed in the European Middle Ages, in which they believed that the whole world consisted only of Africa, Asia and Europe. Eventually, after all was discovered, and scientists did their thing with tectonic plates, they divided North and South America into two different continents – and rightly so. Why? Because the two landmasses are on separate tectonic plates. Again, a picture for you as reference.
In case you can’t see, the brown plate is North America and the purple is South America. Well, now that we’ve established a well-documented, existing definition (that North and South America are two different continents) we can continue with our proof. And yes, I am aware that people around the world are actually taught different things. There’s a five continent model (old mode from the 60’s in Europe – hence the five Olympic rings), a six continent model where North and South America are combined into one (mainly taught in Europe and Latin American countries), and finally the seven continent model where North and South America are separate. However, most geographers and scientists now agree on a six continent model – but North and South America are still separate continents (refer to tectonic plates if you want to know why). The true six continent model (true as in geographically and scientifically endorsed) combines Europe with Asia (Eurasia) as they are technically one single landmass on one single tectonic plate. So either way, if someone tries to say North and South America are just one continent (America), then that’s how they were taught so it’s not their fault that they’re wrong. Yes, they are still wrong.
Let’s go back to our original claim “American is a continent not a country”. Wrong. Here’s where the previous hint comes back; the Americas (notice the plural) are two continents. They can also be collectively known as Pan-America, which consists of North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. America (notice the singular) is not a continent. The continents are North America and South America, remember? Cutting the first half off a word does not make it the same thing, especially when the second half is the same for two different continents. In fact, these stupid claims are defeated by their very own logic. They argue that we cannot call the United States of America by the shortened term “America” but they say America is continent when it is itself shortened by cutting off the preceding word. In both cases, we’re ignoring the first half of the name, so “America is a continent, not a country” is already wrong by its own reasoning. So what makes it more correct to use America/American to refer to the US and its people? I’m glad you asked.
First of all, “American” is a demonym. A demonym is basically a term for the populace of a certain locale, based on the name of that region. Thus, Chinese (from China), Australian (from Australia) and American (from America). Now, here’s the fun bit. Let’s just say for an instance that the word America does not, by itself, have any meaning – thus nullifying the semantics of the word American (ignoring the fact that some people do already say “North American” and “South American”). What then would you call a person from the US? United States of American? United Statesian? Here’s my personal favourite: USAsian. It even sounds like “You is Asian”. If we ever change the word “American” it should be to USAsian. If you want to blame someone, blame the people who decided to name a country “the United States of [landmass]”. They obviously didn’t foresee the difficulty of naming things when they came up with that name. As a result, we just have the word American, which is a nice, simple demonym.
Second, and here we get into a bit of the etymology and semantics of language itself, what is the meaning of a word? If you think about it, a word is really just a wavelength emitted by our vocal chords. That’s the scientific way of saying “words are just sound”. So how does this sound have a meaning attached to it? It’s meaning is given to it by its use. If it’s used to represent something, it will come to mean that thing. The word “American” has already had a few hundreds years of usage to describe people/things from the United States. Not only that, it was popularised and utilised by the media and government (the American Dollar and the American Dream), so really, the word has already established its meaning and the media, people and government were the ones who created the word’s meaning, as well as ensuring that it sticks. So yes, America is the shortened word for the United States of America, and American is the word for a person/thing from the US. Its usage as such is perfectly correct.
Before I forget, I remembered someone saying “stop claiming the entire continent for yourselves”. I’m guessing that the other people belonging to North and South America (the continents) are feeling left out of their own continent. Well, in response, I say: chill out. You should be glad that you’re not lumped in with the US and have a country name and appropriate denonym for yourselves. That means you don’t get dragged into the American image of archaicness, obesity and stupidity (among other things). Now stop trying to argue that America “is a continent not a country” or you mind end up being considered stupid after all.