Merriam-Webster defines “meme” as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” or “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media.” That definition hasn't been around forever—it hasn't even been around for five years. The dictionary editors officially added the entry along with “emoji” and “clickbait” to the formal dictionary in May 2015.
Memes have always come with an air of mystery, intriguing and confusing even the most computer literate. Where did they come from? More importantly, what do they mean? Even modern science is hopping on the meme train. A team of scientific researchers from University College London, Cyprus University of Technology, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and King's College London came together in September 2018 to research the internet's most popular memes. Apart from assembling a definitive list of the world's favorite memes, the academic study also explored the influences (both positive and negative) that memes have on different communities. Some memes are created just for fun by creative or bored internet users, but others are made with the explicit intention of going viral to promote political ideas.
With the infinite number of memes scattered across the internet, it's hard to keep track. Just when you've grasped the meaning of one hilarious meme, it has already become old news and replaced by something equally as enigmatic. Online forums like Tumblr, Twitter, 4chan, and Reddit are responsible for a majority of meme infections, and with the constant posting and sharing, finding the source of an original meme is easier said than done. Stacker hunted through internet resources, pop culture publications, and databases like Know Your Meme to find 50 different memes and what they mean. While the almost self-replicating nature of these vague symbols can get exhausting, memes in their essence can also bring people closer together—as long as they have internet access.
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“Distracted boyfriend” first entered the meme game in 2017, when a Turkish Facebook group used a stock photo of a man walking with a girl while checking out another girl to make a joke about Phil Collins. The meme continues to be relevant today while being used as inspiration for pop culture references, such as this recent one involving "Queer Eye's" Antoni Porowski, and new celebrity couple Kate Beckinsale and Pete Davidson at a New York Rangers game.
In 2017, when a number of posters on Tumblr and 4chan started bragging about their brain sizes, it quickly turned into a meme. Photos of different sized brains are paired with “smart” sounding words until they expand into a fully enlightened stage. One of the first manifestations of the “expanding brain” meme came from the who-whom-whomst progression of words that seemingly makes one sound smarter.
Back in 2018 a photo surfaced of the rappers Young Thug and Lil Durk staring at a computer screen while working on new music in the studio. The internet quickly began finding humorous (and fabricated) explanations for what the two were so intently concentrating on, everything from the rappers planning an elaborate heist to playing old school games like minesweeper.
While the “First World” terminology has been around for a while, the hashtag #firstworldproblems reached its peak in popularity on Twitter in 2011 after Buzzfeed posted a series of memes about problems experienced by privileged people from wealthy countries. The meme almost always depicts an attractive person looking sad, with a caption explaining his or her First World frustrations.
After Steven Crowder, a conservative podcaster, posted a photo of himself in 2018 sitting at a desk with a sign saying “Male privilege is a myth: Change my mind,” it was almost too easy for the internet to begin making fun of him with memes of their own. Memes ranged from simply changing the words on the sign to elaborate photoshops.
Drake has been the subject of several different memes throughout his long career. His 2015 single “Hotline Bling” was one of the biggest songs of the year, and when the music video came out featuring Drake dancing in a brightly lit cube structure the memes began to accumulate even more. Since then the internet has memed everything from his Twitter posts to school portraits.
The “is this a pigeon” meme first rose to popularity in 2011 after Tumblr posted a photo from a Japanese animated show of an android mistaking a butterfly for a pigeon. Most of the memes derived from the photo use the subjects to express modern confusions or paranoia.
“Real name Google searches” is a meme that gained popularity in 2018 using the generic google template to depict made-up names for popular celebrities (usually those who go by aliases). According to Know Your Meme, it first appeared showing the rapper Lil Pump's name as “Lilliam Pumpernickel” and only got more ridiculous from there.
“Futurama Fry” is one of the most relatable memes on the web. One popular meme, which began in 2011, shows the character Fry from the animated show “Futurama” with eyes narrowed thinking about contradicting questions usually referring to modern times or sarcasm. Another is a generic photo with the same character holding cash yelling “shut up and take my money,” used for when someone finds the description of a product on the internet particularly appealing.
The phrase “weird flex but OK” is used when someone brags about something that others would find awkward or just plain irrelevant. The phrase began showing up on the internet in 2017 and has continued to be used in response to awkward boasts. One of the most popular uses of the meme was during the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings after he used his high school virginity as an argument.
Taken out of a 2013 webcomic strip called “On Fire,” this image showing a human-like dog enjoying his coffee while his house is burning down has seemingly become more and more relatable every year. The image is rarely altered, simply attached to troubling or hard-to-grasp news.
Jokes about “big brother watching” are old, but in early 2018 the internet was more paranoid than ever before thanks to the internet-fueled idea of FBI agents watching people through their webcams. The memes aren't always critical, either; most of them depict the agents either protecting or being friendly with their subjects.
The iconic green puppet has stolen the hearts of millions on the “Muppet Show” since the 1950s, but the internet meme sensation didn't begin until 2014. Most notable memes include Kermit sipping on some tea with passive aggressive text followed by “but that's none of my business,” as well as another with a hooded Kermit formatted to show good vs. evil thoughts.
From “I need dis” to “Nyan Cat,” there really isn't one subject that emcompasses the internet's love of memes better than cats. Since the early 2000s when “Keyboard Cat” first made an appearance on YouTube, people have been posting funny images of felines paired with hilarious text.
Also known as the “squat and squint” meme, the photo showing a squinting woman staring at something in the distance actually came from an outtake of a Instagram shot that went viral in March 2018. Since then, the picture has been applied to any circumstance that the poster finds unbelievable.
When the first trailer for the highly anticipated movie starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga came out in 2018, excited fans took screenshots and made them into memes. The most popular ones came from funny adaptations of Cooper's line “I just wanted to take another look at you” and Gaga's belted solo from the song “Shallow.”
Also known as “evil Patrick” or “savage Patrick,” this meme takes a still of the character Patrick from “Spongebob Squarepants” with a menacing look in his eyes from a 1999 episode. Twitter got a hold of it around February 2018 and started using the image along with an explanation of bad behavior or motives.
Following a 2018 MarketWatch article that implied an unrealistic amount of savings one should have in their 30s, people on Twitter began responding to the article by sharing all the other things you should ideally have by age 35 (from the hilariously true to the ridiculous). Advice on avocado toast, Pokemon, and drawers full of miscellaneous chargers followed.
The “don't say it” meme details the relatable conversations people have between themselves and their brains, from bringing up awkward conversations topics to resisting “that's what she said” jokes. The first tweet with the meme showed up in 2010, but later resurfaced in 2017 and showed an inner struggle between whether or not to start a conversation with a taxi driver.
The 1987 film “Predator” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers contained within it what could be the manliest handshake of all time, and in 2007 it began gaining traction on YouTube. After multiple videos and fan art paying tribute to the handshake became popular in the following years, object labeling memes using the handshake as a background to agreements began to arise in 2018.
There have been several memes revolving around the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk throughout the years, especially following his Twitter request for “dank memes” in October 2018. One of the most popular Musk memes uses an image of the billionaire smoking during a podcast interview.
“Mocking Spongebob” uses an image from a 2012 episode of Spongebob Squarepants to make fun of another person's opinion on the internet. The earliest uses of this meme came in 2017 on Twitter, quickly gaining traction and becoming one of the most popular (and effective) ways to insult someone online.
In 2016 a British mockumentary starring actor Kayode Ewumi called “Hood Documentary” was uploaded onto YouTube by BBC. Soon after, people on the internet began using a screen-grabbed image of Ewumi pointing to his temple like he had a good idea to reversely joke about bad decisions and poor thinking.
When Ariana Grande released her single “Thank U, Next” about her ex-boyfriends in early 2019, fans quickly began creating memes out of the lyrics. Aside from just using the title phrase to demonstrate being over something and moving on, the internet also used the lyrics to compare three things that taught them love, patience, and pain to mimic the chorus.
People on the internet use the “Let's get this bread” meme ironically (usually it is slang for earning money) to make fun of people or themselves for trying too hard to earn money. In 2018 the meme exploded into everything from mockeries of the gluten-intolerant to references to Olive Garden.
A screen-grabbed image of Pikachu looking surprised from an episode of "Pokemon" caught the attention of Twitter in late 2018. For the next few months, the image blew up when people started using it as a meme for doing something with an obvious outcome.
The meme uses an image of Gene Wilder's 1971 Willy Wonka character to say something patronizing or mock someone. First used on Gizmodo and Tumblr as early as 2011, the image has become a common condescending response online.
Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill began a friendship while filming “Justice League” in 2016, and when a photo was taken of Momoa sneaking up on Cavill on the red carpet the same year, it quickly went viral. On the last day of 2017, a Facebook account posted a meme using the image, labeling Momoa as “2018.” The meme gained popularity throughout the following months as people labeled the two as different things creeping up on each other.
In yet another Spongebob Squarepants meme, “exhausted Spongebob” uses an image from a 1999 episode where the character is leaning against a rock, naked and out of breath. Twitter began using the screengrab as an attachment to tweets around March 2018 about being tired.
There is a lot of unique classical art out there, so of course the internet has to find the most hilarious and wacky pieces to turn into memes. While art-related videos and other online art parodies can be traced back to 2004, the more recognizable memes gained popularity starting in 2013.
Most people will recognize the “world's most interesting man” (played by actor Jonathan Goldsmith) from the Dos Equis beer commercials that began in 2008. The meme usually uses the image of Goldsmith as a well-dressed gentleman with an adaptation of his catchphrase “I don't always X, but when I do, I Y” and began to gain popularity as early as 2010.
One of the most popular memes of 2017, “guy blinking nervously” is usually used in GIF form to demonstrate bafflement and being caught unaware. The GIF initially came from a clip of a video producer when his co-worker said something inappropriate accidentally.
The “hard to swallow pills” meme uses two stock photos from WikiHow that were first posted to the internet in August 2017. It didn't take long for a Redditor to photoshop the image of the pill bottle to read “hard to swallow pills” and use it as a meme to illustrate a difficult truth.
The internet has taken the childhood game of “who would win” to a whole new level with this meme. Used to pose hypothetical battles between two opposing subjects, the “who would win” meme is said to have begun in 2014 when a 4chan user posted the meme using two video games as opponents.
The classic rhetorical question “How do you sleep at night?” was the inspiration for this meme. The more modern rendition shows a picture of a person or animal sleeping soundly with different versions of the words: “How I sleep knowing...” This usually refers to something that most people feel guilty about or worry about (and therefore lose sleep over).
Ever since the show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” first aired in 2007, people fell in love with watching the family's antics. They have all been the subject of a huge number of memes, with some of the most popular ones using screen shots from the show (usually of a meltdown or overreaction).
“Today days old” is used as a response to any random realization. It first came from posts asking “How old were you when you realized X?” with someone responding: “I was today years old.” This can be a fact both well-known or more obscure.
Pepe the frog is a fictional character that first appeared in a 2005 comic, and has gone through multiple transformations since then. Starting out as a positive meme known as “feel good frog” in 2008, Pepe was edited into a more sad or angry meme a few years later. By 2015, what was initially intended to symbolize a peaceful way of life by the artist became twisted by several hate groups causing the image to be added to the Anti-Defamation League's database of hate symbols in 2016.
Taken from an image of the famous athlete's emotional speech during his 2009 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, this meme is usually used to convey a fan's disappointment when his particular team loses or performs poorly. The meme has been around since first appearing on MemeCrunch in 2012 and gained an official fan page on Tumblr in 2015. Jordan has reportedly found the entire fad pretty funny.
“Slaps roof of car” can be traced back to a 2014 tweet of a ridiculous car salesmen conversation overheard and started blowing up in 2018 after being paired with an illustrated stock image of a car salesman showing off a car. The meme has seen many photoshopped variations, but usually utilizes the phrase “This bad boy can fit so much X in it.”
Also known as “Side Eyeing Chloe,” this meme can be used in pretty much any awkward situation. The original photo came from a video of a little girl giving an unimpressed and hesitant look after being told about a surprise trip to Disneyland in 2013.
Just about every “Spongebob Squarepants” fan knows about the intense rivalry between the Krusty Krab and the Chum Bucket restaurants, but the former usually reigns supreme. The meme uses photoshopped images of both cartoon restaurants in order to project two rivals, such as sports teams and TV shows.
The “Elf on the Shelf” tradition began when parents would put an elf doll in the mantle during the holiday season and tell their children that it was watching them be naughty or nice. Toward the end of 2017, it became popular to post images of funny things that rhyme sitting on top of other things that rhyme using the phrase “You've heard of elf on the shelf, now get ready for X.”
Fans of “Lord of the Rings” won't need an explanation for this meme. Actor Sean Bean played Boromir in the movies, and one of his famous lines, “One does not simply walk into Mordor,” became the inspiration for a meme that plays on the phrase. Bean himself even admitted to seeing a big influx of the memes online during a 2015 interview.
After a 2017 tweet that posed a questionnaire using the classic dating template “I am a man/woman looking for a man/woman” about Carly Rae Jepsen, a meme was born. Since then, it has become popular to use the format to make funny declarations.
One of the most popular memes of all time, “success kid” uses a 2007 photo taken of a little boy with a clenched fist and determined expression. It is almost always used to display small successful moments or “wins” that happen to someone throughout a normal day like getting an extra chicken nugget in a fast-food meal.
“Overly attached girlfriend” began in 2012 when a Redditor took a screenshot of an image he found comical from a video of a girl singing a rendition of Justin Bieber's song “Boyfriend.” It quickly began making its rounds on the internet, using captions portraying her as a stereotypical overly attached girlfriend.
The internet just couldn't help itself after images surfaced of a little boy mowing the lawn at the White House completely ignoring Trump. The kid was apparently so focused on the job that he didn't notice Trump when he came out to greet him, forcing Trump to yell loudly over the sound of the lawnmower and making for some great meme fuel.
The “Left exit 12” meme uses a series of screen grabs from a 2013 YouTube video showing a car drifting dangerously into an exit ramp. People began photoshopping the exit sign (exit 12) to say comical things that one might swerve off the highway in order to get to.