Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Journey to the Center of the Meme

Today I saw an evergreen social media post entitled “Did You Know These Things Had Names?”

It’s one of those internet chestnuts that have been floating around for years with no attribution to an original source. Which is a terribly annoying paradox of the internet, namely, the more popular and universal (and memefied) an image or text becomes, the less likely it is that its creator will ever receive proper credit. “We love this, it belongs to the world now,” say millions of people (cough, Boomers), who in any other context would swear they oppose socialism, as they click the Share button on Facebook. And off it goes, taking the first step on a journey to the de facto public domain.

As a would-be writer, I find the memefication process both frustrating and somewhat inspirational. Writers, artists, photographers - anyone who falls under the 21st-century umbrella of “content creators” - all want to be recognized for their work. It’s partly an ego thing, but it’s also very much a money thing. Let’s face it, even when John Lennon wrote “Imagine no possessions, it’s easy if you try,” he backed it up with an ironclad copyright. If his lyrics were to go the way of “Amazing Grace” or “Moonlight Bay,” Yoko Ono would find herself possessing bupkus. And Hell hath no fury like an Ono screwed out of her piece of John’s legacy.

That’s the money part. The ego part is simply this: Most anyone who creates wants their creations to be seen, and by as many folks as possible. There might be a million people who claim to have created the “You Had One Job” meme. But somewhere out there is the person who actually did - and even though they’re absolutely anonymous, they see their creation shared in a thousand different variations a thousand times a year. That’s got to be a rush. It’s slightly less notable than knowing you’re the babysitter who first read a ghost story to little Stevie King, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless.

With that in mind, here is the unattributed “Did You Know These Things Had Names?” meme:

After I screenshotted this bad boy, I decided I would try to trace it to its source. As this particular meme contains more words and therefore presumably required more research to create, I figured there had to be a recognizable author attached to it somewhere. So I went a-digging.

The earliest version of the “hey, here are some funny names for obscure things” trope that I could find via Google was from 2014, and that was a Buzzfeed listicle by Dave Stopera. Which suggested two things: One, that it almost certainly didn’t originate with him; and two, that it was probably a Reddit thread at some earlier point.

A Reddit search told me, much to my surprise, that this list of words apparently wasn’t an aggregation of other people’s fun facts that Dave claimed as his own. Huh. So I kept looking.

A bit more digging led me to a link to a 2019 article from Reader’s Digest Canada (which is an actual thing) called “18 Things You Never Knew Actually Had Names.” It was attributed to “Emily DiNuzzo, with files from Mitchell Symons from the book The Weird World of Wonders.” And it consisted of a list of words that more or less mirrored the meme.

Interesting (or maybe not) aside: Emily’s article got around, also appearing in the American, Australian, and Asian editions of Reader’s Digest. But the Canadian website is the only one that actually attributes the contents to Mitchell Symons. Even a worldwide legacy publication like Reader’s Digest has contributed wilfully to the memefication phenomenon. 

Ask your parents about Reader's Digest,
Drunkards under 40.

In any event, this was a clue! So…who is this Mitchell Symons? Turns out that was an easy Google. He’s a British writer who worked for the BBC, wrote a column for the Daily Express, and wrote questions for the first UK version of Trivial Pursuit. He’s also written a slew of books in the “amusing but useless knowledge” genre, including Where Do Nudists Keep Their Hankies?, How Much Poo Does an Elephant Do?, and Why Do Farts Smell Like Rotten Eggs? Sort of like the “Imponderables” books by Dave Feldman (Do Penguins Have Knees, etc.), only with weird British humor.

Answering this question is outside
the scope of this post, sorry.

Symons also wrote a book called There Are Tittles in This Title, also known as The Weird World of Words (note to Reader’s Digest: not The Weird World of Wonders). Now, I haven’t read or even laid eyes on this book, but it’s well represented on booksellers’ websites from Amazon to Goodreads. And nearly all of them feature the same promotional blurb to describe its contents, which includes the phrase “useful lists of things you never knew had names.”

Without actually reading the book, I can’t say definitively that those “useful lists” form the basis of the meme. But since Emily DiNuzzo copped to using Mitchell Symons’ book (albeit with a bastardized title) as a source, and since online listings for that book seem to describe the meme to a T, I’m going to say pretty confidently that this popular list of obscure words is in fact the work of Mitchell Symons. And I’m here to give him credit for what has up to now been an anonymous bit of internet content.

Really, was that so difficult? OK, it was a borderline obsessive search that few, if any, other people would bother with before smashing the Share button. But I feel good that I’ve helped to de-anonymize a single meme.

The De-Anonymizer is on the case.

Unless I’m wrong, in which case I’m contributing to the internet’s other main problem, which is gross misinformation confidently put out as true.

But that’s a topic for another day.

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