Mostly, when people talk about memes, they have a notion of something somebody does or says and that then will spread like wildfire. Somebody puts up a YouTube video of a cute cat doing cute things, and a week later, the video has been seen 3 million times, things like that. Somebody or somebodies call Obama a socialist over and over and over, and as a result, a year later, the word socialist means something different from what it used to mean, and now – in the US – “socialist” means what used to be called “librul”. And for the people who want to use a word that connotes scary-ness, “librul” was no longer sufficient, since somehow it had lost its scary connotations.
As I commented before, we tend to think of memes as starting in one place and moving outwards. This view of memes is most useful when you are tracking the progress of something deliberately started and not yet commonplace.
I think ultimately memes are more important as a way to look and track the stuff that is already all around us, traveling back and forth in cycles narrow and wide, and interconnected with related memes in ways that have the whole thing be very entrenched.
A fun way to trace the propagation of memes is to look for places where something goes slightly wrong. By this I don’t mean that somebody makes a spelling mistake or picks the wrong talking point on a political talk show.
I have a particular interest in the phenomenon where somebody thinks they are passing along something that everybody knows, something they pass off without comment and without trying to be funny, and yet they clearly had a misconception about the origin of what they are passing along. The title of this post gives one example:
Whoa Is Me!
I can just imagine somebody hearing the phrase “Woe is me!” all around them, presumably when they are young, and attempting to make sense of the phrase, without having seen it in print. The word “woe”, by itself, is not very common in modern usage, but the word “whoa!” is quite common. They sound the same, and it would be an honest mistake to think that the people who said “Woe is me!” really were saying “Whoa is me!”. But it is also clear that something is going on that goes way beyond an honest mistake. The phrase “Whoa is me!” makes at least as much sense as the phrase “Woe is me!” ever did. Allowing for the strange and archaic-sounding syntax, somebody reconstructing the phrase as “Whoa is me!” must be thinking of being hit with something very disconcerting, which would have made perfect sense in most if not all occasions in which the people around were saying “woe is me!”
I call this phenomenon reinvention – and I believe it is an absolutely essential part of any language learning, even if it escapes notice, as it usually does.
In a previous era, such reinvention might never be noticed. The person saying “whoa is me!” might never have occasion to write it down. It is not the kind of thing you’d write in school reports, or in job applications, or in the kinds of unedited writing that people would do. It is precisely the kind of thing that editors of the “letters to the editor” section of a newspaper would correct back to the “woe is me!” form..
In the Internet era, such reinventions are more likely to surface, in blogs and comment sections, and i think they deserve to be studied. In the last several years, I’ve collected a bunch of these. My criterion for the collection is that they appear to be unselfconscious, that is, not in an attempt to be funny or clever. Also, that they can be defended as making at least as much sense as the “official” version the “historically correct” version. The purpose of the collection is to draw attention to a phenomenon of language and of language learning. What I assume is that the same kinds of thinking that lead to this particular collection of utterances is also at play when the language learner reconstructs something the same way as everybody else – the difference is simply that in those (more common) cases nobody notices that any reinvention was taking place. It is the exceptions that shine a light on the normal.
Here are some of the other examples I’ve collected:
move the gold posts
take his marvels and go home
a brush of fresh air
cut off one’s nose despite their own face
I hate to dissolution you
The canary in the mind
Flushing out ideas
For some of these, your reaction might be “what’s wrong with this? Isn’t this the way it is supposed to be?” The construct “here here!”, in particular, gets more Google hits than the (apparently historically correct) version “hear, hear!” For many modern English speakers, the origin of “hear, hear” is lost and lacks context.
All of these examples are from actual writing, most of it on the Internet, though I admit to not having sources to link to. It’s not difficult finding references of use, it is harder to find examples where you can see it used in un-selfconscious ways. Sometimes it is not clear if someone is trying to kid you, like in this example for honest engine. Note that the meaning they quote in the urban dictionary is exactly like the meaning you would expect for “honest Injun” or “honest Indian” which is held as offensive and thus rarely seen in serious, edited, print anymore.
I think the Reinventions are different enough from Mondegreens to deserve a separate designation.
Updated July 25, 2010: Here’s one I saw the other day -
move the gold posts
which has, at the moment, 149 different Google hits. It’s interesting to imagine the thinking that would hear “goal posts” and interprets it as “gold posts”. It helps that very few people in any sane scenario ever move goal posts for soccer, or any similar sports that actually do have goal posts. Since the meaning appears metaphorically anyway, a metaphor involving gold posts seems quite defensible. If I was faced with posts made of real gold, I might want to move them too!
Updated February 21, 2011:
I added “blind sighted” to the list. Saw this in a comment thread at a political website. Since being blind has to do with eyesight, it isn’t too hard to empathize with someone hearing “blind-sided” and thinking the whole thing is about not-seeing. The origin of “blind-sided” has to do with being attacked from your “blind side”, i.e. from an angle where you can’t see them.
Google tells me there are at least three books with “Blind Sighted” in their title, one by Karin Slaughter, one by Peter Moore, one by David Olsen. I’ll assume those are self-conscious uses, that is, they are deliberate plays on the ambiguity.
Update March 11, 2011:
I added “gang green” and “take his marvels and go home” to the list. Feel free to show me (for any of these entries) that I’ve been pwned and that the person using the language did so deliberately.
Update August 12, 2011:
I added “need deep”. Saw this in a commentary thread. Doesn’t look like a typo for ‘knee deep’ but instead a recreation of the sound of the expression.
Update November 20, 2011:
I added “sorted history”, “a brush of fresh air”, and “skiddish”. “Sorted history” most likely relates to “sordid history’ but might also relate to “checkered history”. A brush of fresh air relates to a breath of fresh air. Skiddish reinvents skittish, with the same pronunciation (at least in American English) but a different root.
Update January 7, 2012:
Added “cut off one’s nose despite their own face” – it evokes a battle between the person with the knife and the person with the face fighting back, even though it is the same person.
Also added “hate to dissolution you” as if what’s going on is some kind of PWNing. “Canary in the mind” must make sense to someone very unfamiliar with mines and their history: it evokes the idea of going ‘coocoo’ for me.
Added “Flushing out ideas”, which evokes the flushing out of birds by dogs or hunters so that they can be clearly seen. To someone hearing it this way, “fleshing out ideas” must sound like a positively strange and unlikely conception.