Memetics of Meaning, Memory and Me: The minefield of the annoying or endearing mannerism

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Did you ever notice how some verbal expressions have an extra meaning for you, just you, because of history? In reflecting on this, it is impossible to not consider such lofty topics as memes, cultural transmission, and … well, meaning. A particular expression might invoke a memory of an event, or of a person who often uses that expression. That can be a pleasant experience, or an unpleasant one. If you know what I mean.

A moment or two ago a person who could only be described as annoying, whom I do not personally know, corrected me on Facebook. I had responded to Carl Zimmer‘s lament that he was unable to look back at Facebook entries, RSS feeds, and so on that had accumulated during his one week vacation. My comment was simply to say that absolutely nothing had happened over the previous week, so he should not worry. Obviously, I was kidding. But Mr. Annoying had to jump in with some news items that had in fact happened, with the implication that these news stories were very important to him and I was really bad for suggesting that it had been a slow week.

He started his Facebook troll-comment1 with the phrase “Not so…”

It turns out that2 I can’t hear or read a comment that starts with “Not so…” without getting real annoyed because it is a verbal expression that has extra meaning to me.

This extra meaning comes from a guy I knew when I was very young. Ten years old plus or minus one, I would say. He was a man of about twenty two who did his hair and beard up to look exactly like the standard Western depiction of Jesus Christ. One time, while staring at my aunt, who was a Franciscan nun, he simply said to her “Do I remind you of someone?” She thought for a moment and answered “Yes, actually, you remind me of a DJ I know in Hawaii,” and kind of grinned.

Anyway, he was trying to court my sister, and he was a councilor at the boys camp next to the state camp ground my family would live on for the months of May and June most summers. No matter what I ever said, he’d respond “Not so…” and then tell me how I was wrong.

I was rarely wrong, so this was especially annoying. I was just a kid, and he was Jesus Christ, so he probably figured I was wrong all the time by default, but little did he know that I was one of those obnoxious precocious smart kids who in fact had already read his first encyclopedia and was about half way through his second, which he was carefully and sincerely doing just so that some day he could say “Oh. Encyclopedias. Yeah, I read a couple of those…”

So, if you say “Not so … bla bla bla” to me I’ll rarely hear the bla bla bla, I’ll think of this obnoxious guy (well, I think my sister liked him, but she was a teenager at the time so that does not mean much) and I won’t be listening to the rest of your sentence. Rather, I’ll be pleasantly recalling in my mind the fate that eventually came to Jesus Christ. Which was, if you must know, this: The boys at the boys camp, many of whom had been sent there by their parole or probation officers, were also annoyed by Jesus Christ. So one day he walked in after lights out to make sure the kids were all in their bunks, and some kids dropped on him from the rafters of the crudely built dormitory, tied him up, and shaved off every bid of hair on his head. I think they even plucked his nose hairs out for good measure.

So, that what i’ll be thinking about. You, de-haired.

I have a more pleasant example: “That makes me laugh.”

Last night, I was having coffee with Lizzie, and we were talking about her life and her plans for the next few years, which could involve moving. So we were talking about how representative New York City was of the rest of the east coast, and this got me on to a topic I often bring up which is how to know a phrase or mannerism is particular to an individual, vs. regionally or subregionally used. When I first moved to Minnesota, I already knew about certain Midwestern mannerisms, because I had lived in the Midwest for a while a couple of years earlier. So when people started randomly talking to me in the video rental store, I knew this was a Midwestern thing. I quickly learned that Minnesotans, uniquely and to the exclusion of Wisconsinites, reversed the meaning of “yet” and “still” compared to people on the east coast.

But there were other things I was not so sure of, and several of these came from my BFF Stephanie, who is the first person who took the time and energy to really show me around The Cities. She would say, for instance, “that makes me laugh” quite frequently (but at appropriate times). I didn’t know at first if “that makes me laugh” was her or Minnesota or the Midwest. After a while I concluded that it was Stephanie. But then I met my wife and her sister, and they said it too, and then I noticed that occasionally Amanda’s brother says it, and I heard a couple of their old high school friends say it. So I now realize that this is a Western Suburb (Golden valley, Plymouth, Hopkins) thing of a particular generation. It probably spread among these folks in high school.

I don’t hear many people say “that makes me laugh” but I use the phrase myself in my writing. When I do, that means that I’m thinking of Stephanie. So now when you read my stuff, you’ll know that.

I mentioned all this to Lizzie, pointing out that she does not have any western Twin Cities mannerisms because she is from the eastern Twin Cities. As I said that, she was twirling the end of the single braid of brilliantly red hair that came down from her feathered head dress, which nicely complemented her shamanistic necklace and her home made little black dress. Then I thought … wow. Lizzie has no mannerisms. So that is the second unique characteristic that makes me think so highly of her. “Actually, I think all your mannerisms are from Berkeley, California. Have you ever lived there?” I asked her. “Not yet,” was her reply.3

There are a whole bunch of blogospheric expressions that have emerged fairly recently that invoke particular meaning for me. The phrase “to call one out” in one form or another is particularly annoying to me no matter who uses it because it invokes the idea of the self righteous judgmental twit who thinks it is his or her job to patrol the blosophere for people who say or do certain things (whether they really do or not), then drag those individuals into the public square for some kind of blogflogging. The negativity arises, of course, from the fact that the first twenty or so times I heard the expression, it was me that was getting “called out!”

“As it were” reminds me of an old friend who used that expression, with irony, all the time. The construction “it is doing” for the English habitual “it does” reminds me of two or three European friends and their semi-broken English. Walter Cronkite’s “And that’s the way it was” is almost identical to the Efe Pygmy expression that ends most short story segments. That makes me laugh.

Am I the only person who experiences mannerism flashbacks?

1It is of note that I am very rarely annoyed by anything anyone says on facebook. But I am often annoyed by comments on my blog. I suppose on facebook … well, those are my friends.
2This expression always makes me think of Terry Deacon.
3That was totally paraphrased.

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34 thoughts on “Memetics of Meaning, Memory and Me: The minefield of the annoying or endearing mannerism

  1. Am I the only person who experiences mannerism flashbacks?

    Not so. I come from an Acadian French family and often befuddle Jodi with mannerisms picked up from ages hence, as it were. She frequently calls me out on them, yet I still do them from time to time. This makes me laugh.

  2. ACK!!! … even though I should have been prepared for it, that “NOT SO” totally got me. Totally flashed on Jesus. Well done. Good to get fooled form time to time.

  3. Not to call you out or anything (as that I have no desire to publically blogflog you (or privately for that matter)) but what is your third footnote in reference to? Perhaps I have been at work too long, but I don’t seem to see anything being referenced in the article.

  4. Given that Montaigne might have written this essay (in a different style of course; and with a few anachronisms fixed up), how does memetics fit in here?

  5. I grew up in the Eastern Suburbs, and I’m pretty sure we said “that makes me laugh” too. At least, I have a distinct memory of a conversation in which it was pointed out that the phrase was often used in lieu of actually laughing. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who else was part of the conversation, so I’m not sure if it was during high school (White Bear Lake), college (Minneapolis) or grad school (Northern CA).

  6. Oran: What do I know???

    But seriously…

    Memetics does have to come to terms with mechanism, which it tends not to (or I should say the writing about it tends not to). So if an expression has a certain neutral meaning, but its actual use can invoke an emotion or secondary meaning in a given individual because of history, well, that is a powerful mechanism that can strongly influence memetic transmission.

    So, consider two of the key examples I gave here. You are not going to hear me using the term “Not so” because it repulses me, so I’m a dead end for that. But I’m whimsical and positively emotional about “that makes me laugh” so I use it a lot. In fact, as I’ve been fielding comments on this post, I am writing a long Linux related essay that opens:

    It is often said that “Linux would be better if you didn’t have to use the command line” or “Linux would be usable on the desktop if you didn’t have to use the command line” or “If only … Linux …. command line … my grandmother …. just click on it…” and so on.

    This makes me laugh.

    So, I’m constantly bathing all eleven of my readers in a gentle, positive, funny, replicator made up of that phrase.

    At a more subtle level, and here we are not just in memetics but more broadly in semiotics, we are talking about the development of intrinsic meaning that can happen as words and phrases go along in time.

  7. JenW: There are White Bear people who read this blog so they can tell us if they remember “it makes me laugh” in that context. It will also be interesting to hear from the Lake Elmo people. Lizzie is more rural Stillwater, although now very firmly planted in South.

    It could be that since you were talking about it, it was meta, and thus introduced. There is said to be a small amount of leakage between Minneapolis and its suburbs and Saint Paul and its suburbs, though I personally think this is inconceivable!

  8. Jason, you think that I want you to think that I think that is a meme, but in reality, I think you are thinking that Im’ thinking that I want you to think that it is NOT a meme, so ….

  9. I don’t remember “That makes me laugh,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t present in Stillwater (Lake Elmo counts here, since the high school was in Stillwater). In school, I hung out with kids who spelled “gray” with an “e” and never saw an “or” they didn’t think should be interrupted by a “u.” We spoke a weird mix of archaic and modern English with a bunch of private jokes thrown in.

    Also, I did not graduate anywhere near the same time Amanda did, as far as trends go. That age difference will make a difference. She probably has no traces of Valley speak in her vocabulary. I do.

    JenW, you up for saying when you graduated WBL?

    Finally, Greg, I’m very amused at how…differently we use some common phrases, as it were.

  10. Hi Stephanie! I graduated WBL in ’93, with Ana. I also (like Ana) went to elementary school with Ben (hi Ben!).

  11. This is a great post, Greg. I get very annoyed when people around these parts start a sentence with “Say?” as a way of introducing a question or asking/telling me to do something I usually don’t want to do. It’s almost never good. “Say? Can you re-write those 400 pages?” or “Say? we were thinking of raising the rent.” It’s even more annoying when I catch myself doing it.

    A friend who grew up in upstate NY always says “You make me smile” or “that makes me smile” at the end of almost every sentence and I do not mind one bit, and have kind of adopted it myself. But, I find the phrase “good on ya” sets my teeth on edge.

  12. My Scottish brother-in-law often substitutes “but” for “though” at the end of sentences, even if the “though” would be somewhere in the middle. It took me years to figure out what he was trying to say.

    On another note, my girlfriend has a BA in linguistics, and I have a passing interest in it, so we often marvel at how thoroughly we can mangle the English language and still convey very precise ideas to each other. For example, saying “thbldlbldlbld” while wiggling my finger passed as a synonym for doorstop the other day.

  13. Greg @10: I’m not going to say what you expect me to say, not the least reason which being it’ll inflate your ego.

    itzac @16: I will substitute “thing” for nouns, verbs, or even entire sentences sometimes. I’m understood maybe at best half the time.

  14. The very closest I came to getting beat up by bullies as a kid, was the result of my using the phrase, “as it were.” I probably would have been, but my next eldest brother was around and he didn’t take kindly to anyone but him beating on me. I have used that phrase for my whole life, as it were…

    And in a fit of true strange, I get rather teeth-grindy, whenever someone says “not so.” It totally smacks of condescension of the highest order, right there with fucking bastards who refer to me as “Mr. Brayton.” I don’t allow small children to refer to me as that and sure as hell won’t put up with it from grownups who should fuckingwell know better. “As you know,” is also in that category, just below “as we know.” Because what nearly everyone who uses either means is, “as I know and you would, if you weren’t an ignorant fucking moron.” Personally, I am far less offended by being called a fucking moron.

    Monica –

    I actually get rather gritty at “good on ya” too, but that’s mainly because whenever I use it, it is usually to congratulate someone for fucking something up… And in spite of – or more probably because I hate it, Hate it, HATE IT!!!!11!!! when people use the phrase; “Say what?,” I end up using it most of the time when I need someone to repeat themselves. And given the variety of methods by which I have damaged my hearing over the years, that is rather often…

  15. Any time, anyone starts a sentence with the word â??Oneâ? as in â??One can never really know if a rock has feelingsâ?, I have flashbacks to my asshole, all knowing, freshman roommate. That’s OK though, because anyone that actually does that is an asshole and probably deserves to be punched in the face. I’m looking at you Confucius.

  16. Here’s a related phenomena. Have you ever intentional used a word or phrase that is wrong or ridiculous in jest to the point that it no longer sounds wrong or ridiculous? Years ago my wife and I were seated next to a couple that used over the top luvy-wuvy, cutesy-wootsy language when they talked to each other. As soon as they left and were out of earshot, I turned to my wife and said, â??I love you poopsy pants.â? We haven’t looked back.

  17. Well one phrase that always get’s me ’round these parts – Hella. Originally from Southern California, now living in central / northern CA, I swear it’s every other word out of everyone under the age of 30’s mouth. I can stand when people use the term a “hell of a lot of”, which then became helluv, and is now pronounced hella. D

  18. Mmmm. It would seem to me that these phrases are replicands or replicates not replicators.

    Any particular reason to assume these phrases replicate themselves rather than being replicated by human agents with particular motives, backgrounds, competencies, incompetencies?

    If not I wonder if memes just aren’t an unnecessary complication in the discussion, or, rather, an unwarranted simplification.

  19. This: Any particular reason to assume these phrases replicate themselves rather than being replicated by human agents with particular motives, backgrounds, competencies, incompetencies?

    is a question that can only lead to a methodological quagmire.

    This: If not I wonder if memes just aren’t an unnecessary complication in the discussion, or, rather, an unwarranted simplification.

    applies an unfair test, born of a methodological quagmire, to the meme question.

    Not that I’m defending memes or anything.

    However, I will say that I don’t assume that memes, to be something (useful, conceptually or otherwise) need to act like genes or to have a strong parallel in how they work to genes.

  20. “Meme” might better describe language itself, or religion, or various other technologies whose laggard adopters and discontents are left at a competitive disadvantage. (Yes, I’m listing religion as a technology.) Military tactics qualify, as do agricultures. How and where they originate has less effect than how, and how widely, they are copied.

  21. Funny how facebook is more friendly, with the whole ‘friend’ thing, even if you have never met one of the friends.

  22. I quickly learned that Minnesotans, uniquely and to the exclusion of Wisconsinites, reversed the meaning of “yet” and “still” compared to people on the east coast.

    As we reverse as well the meaning of “salad” and “Jello”

  23. I wonder if the expression “in process” is a Massachusetts thing? I’ve heard it from two different people since moving to the area. It’s used like others use “in progress”. “in progress” sounds ok to me as does “in the process of”, but “in process” sounds odd.

  24. Greg has an interesting phrase that he uses as well. I remember when we first started dating and he said he would drop me at the coffee shop. I’m glad he wasn’t being literal or I would have had a broken bone or two!

  25. Yeah, right, well, so, you Minnesotans! You say “shall I come with” or “shall we bring him with” or “I’ll be going with” and so on and so on.

    Makes me laugh.

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