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Your Favourite Memes Will Be Dead In 10 Years, A Linguist Explains Why

“Almost all slang has a very short half-life. I give ‘woke’ a maximum of 10 years.”

We all love a good meme, but according to a Sydney University linguist, the internet catchphrases they rely on are not long for this world.

But first, for the uninitiated, what is a meme?

A meme is basically a set up for a joke or #relatable statement. As the following image shows, they started out as stock photos that provided a backdrop onto which to drop one’s ‘funnies…’


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A post shared by emma (@thinpulsive) on

Like so.


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A post shared by Izzy Waan (@izzywaan) on

But as Instagram has taken off and Facebook has declined, meme pages like Sarcasm Only and The Tasteless Gentleman have taken to using “stock expressions” instead of “stock images.”


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A post shared by ecards (@sarcasm_only) on

Case in point, the phrase “sex is good but have you ever,” a sentence which can be finished with a new punchline each time you think of one (or for different audiences).


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A post shared by Lola Tash and Nicole Argiris (@mytherapistsays) on

“So that’s basically what’s going on with memes, at least as far as the innovative-uses-of-language that they involve goes,” Sydney University lecturer Mark Post told us, when we asked how linguists look at these developments, “Innovations happen, and they spread like a virus.”

But even with 2.53 billion people now having access to a smartphone, memes are not spreading as fast as you might think.

“(Language) innovations spread quickly within internet communities and/or social networks, but spread slowly (if at all) beyond them; chances are, most meme-based innovations will die out within a few years if not less,” Mark said.

“The bar to ‘language change’ is now higher than ever. To get half a billion people to adopt your innovation, you need to be seriously clever, seriously cool, seriously loud, or all three.”

Further adding to your favourite meme’s chance of extinction is the fact that even if it is successful, that too could undermine it.

“A slang user wants to use a non-standard word, and will probably only continue using that word so long as it remains non-standard.”

‘Woke,’ for instance, “Doesn’t sound cool once it is used by seriously uncool people,” Mark pointed out. “And the percentage of seriously uncool people in the world by definition can’t decrease (if we’re all cool, then no-one’s cool).”

“That’s why almost all slang has a very short half-life. I give ‘woke’ a maximum of 10 years.”

And what does it take to create a meme that sticks? According to Mark, what you really need is a new concept that people’s current vocabulary can’t adequately describe (as opposed to just a new way of saying something we already have words for).

“It’s hard to tell why one new word or expression spreads and sticks and another doesn’t… (But) some words stick because they correspond to new things, ideas, or practices.”

“For example the burkini is a new thing, and burkini is the agreed-on word for that thing, so for as long as we have burkinis around, that word will probably be around too,” Mark told us, adding, “Upvoting/downvoting are also things that didn’t exist before, but they exist now, and they’ll probably be called that for as long as they exist.”

And where will these new words and concept lead us? Will our language be as hard for our ancestors in 500 years time to understand as Shakespeare is to us now? Mark reckons; “The smart money is on ‘yes’, since that’s what we expect to happen when a language has so many users, and so much diversity of users, as modern English does.”

“Icelandic and English are fairly closely related, but Icelandic has hardly changed much in 500 years, whereas English has changed a ton. So we’d expect that to continue. But how this will happen is anyone’s guess. The sheer number of speakers, and the instant-connectedness of most of them – nothing remotely like this has ever happened before in human history. It could play out in any number of ways, and we’ll just have to wait and see,” he concluded.

RELATED: New Internet Slang You Will Need To Understand Instagram In 2019 




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