Since its outbreak in late 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a global health crisis of unprecedented magnitude in a matter of a few months and claimed thousands of lives. The pandemic forced billions of people around the world to stay home in quarantines and lockdowns and quickly adapt to sudden changes in living and working conditions. One thing that came as no surprise at a time of “physical” isolation caused by a real-world yet invisible virus is the vast amounts of media people are consuming these days. This excessive media consumption also shows how connected people are online as they cope with the psychological impacts of COVID-19.
According to the Global Web Index report, 87% of US and 80% of UK consumers say they consume more content since the outbreak. Besides the coronavirus updates, people are consuming a wide variety of entertaining and humorous content online, such as listening to music, watching movies/shows and funny videos, playing games on social media, and viewing internet memes. Humor content is found especially important for younger generations and, in fact, more than 50% of Gen Z are looking at memes online and 52% are watching YouTube and TikTok videos.
While being in lockdown and quarantine, people are trying to make sense of what is going on and develop a social reaction to a fatal pandemic in the digital age. As an applied linguist, I am interested in exploring how internet-mediated communication has changed the way people communicate online, particularly how they use language creatively to express humor especially in times of disaster and tragedy of the kind we are currently experiencing.
Since the beginning of the outbreak in China, it wasn’t just the novel coronavirus that began to spread around the world. There has been a massive outpouring of jokes, puns, Tweets, TikTok videos and memes about it that have been spreading online on various social media platforms. COVID-19 is a global health crisis and it is therefore important to investigate the social and cultural artifacts of this pandemic and the new ways of interacting in the form of internet memes.
Positivity and humor online in the age of a pandemic
Along with COVID-19, a lot of new vocabulary and terminology entered into our daily use of language. Stephen J. Mexal, professor of English at California State Fullerton, argues that people can learn obscure and scientific terminology very quickly in times of crisis. Indeed, we are now quite familiar with expressions such as “flattening the curve” and social distancing and can distinguish between an epidemic and a pandemic. For the past several weeks, we have also been bombarded with negative vocabulary on our social media feeds related to the pandemic, such as influenza, death, virus, germs, face masks, disease, ventilators, lockdown, quarantine, to name a few.
While all of this is scary, poking fun at certain aspects of the pandemic through memetic creativity and humor can provide some levity and alleviate anxiety during this troublesome time. Jokes and laughter have long been known to have therapeutic value. Research has shown that laughter stimulates the immune system and there are known benefits of humor in psychotherapy. Humor therapy is an emerging business in healthcare and there are various humor techniques used with patients, such as clown care to promote laughter in healthcare facilities for the benefit of patients, family members, and staff.
Resorting to humor and play at times of tragedy is nothing new. Gallows humor was a coping mechanism for soldiers during World War I, as found in soldiers’ letters home. Kilroy Was Here, the graffito of a bald man looking over a wall doodled by British, Australian and New Zealender forces on walls, bathroom stalls, and railroad cars during World War I with the caption Foo was here and later by American soldiers during World War II with the adaptation Kilroy was here is said to be the first viral meme.
Even before the digital era, fictionalizing chaos and disasters and satirizing tragedies were common in traditional mainstream media. There are numerous examples of comedic interpretations of plague and disaster, such as Dr. Strangelove (1964), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Slither (2006).With the arrival of the internet and meme culture, our tendencies to find humor in tragic situations have only changed and we have acquired new forms of expression in the digital world.
In the digital world, internet memes have become a common way of processing fear and tragedy through humor. A political controversy, natural disaster, celebrity scandal, or some internet phenomenon can easily lead to the quick birth, proliferation and spread of internet memes as a digital public response mechanism. Internet memes not only encourage creativity with online viral content or an emerging social crisis, but they also allow us to process current issues, events and people. They mirror real-life behaviors, experiences and stances in uniquely humorous ways and in various digital forms such as videos, parodies, image macros, and remixes. They also allow people to connect with each other and create a sense of community and levity.
Therefore, it is not surprising that an infectious disease outbreak that quickly turned into a global pandemic has led to various forms of digital artifacts in the form of internet memes. Even though internet memes are relatively a new genre in digital discourse, the concept of memes existed long before the digital era.
The term meme is rooted in evolutionary biology, coined by Richard Dawkins in his famous 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Meme comes from the Greek mimema, meaning “imitated’” which Dawkins is believed to have shortened to rhyme with gene. Memes indeed resemble genes, and the transmission of cultural units is like the transmission of genes. Just as there are good genes, there are also bad or infectious genes. The positive genes are the good ideas that spread from one mind to another and lead to cultural evolution. The bad genes are the bad ideas or mind viruses that are infectious and cause destructive mutation in society. During the transmission process, memes undergo changes by means of copying and imitation. Traditional examples of cultural memes are bird songs, rumors, catchphrases, stories, fashion, etc. The cultural units or memes of a society reflect deep social and cultural structures and can reveal the hidden or implicit ideologies rooted within.
Most memes about COVID-19 we see online have been innocently humorous and about daily hygiene practices such as handwashing, face masks, toilet paper, home quarantines, videoconferences, and the challenges of working from home, while there are also those that can be viewed as “mind viruses” that lead to racial tensions and misinformation. The language used in internet memes interests me particularly at a time when people are enjoying these digital items to alleviate their stress and anxiety. Given that internet memes have revolutionized the way we use language and communicate online, it is worth looking into the language of disaster humor we engage in during the current crisis.
Language of humor in COVID-19 memes
What really makes us laugh when we see an internet meme? Memetic humor is largely predicated on creative multimodality, meaning that it involves the combination of creative texts, images, hyperlinks and other visual features. In this post I will be focusing on three linguistic elements of humor in internet memes. These are intertextuality, wordplay, and incongruity.
Memetic humor relies heavily on the combination of familiar and well-known knowledge and references with current situations and experiences in unique, creative and surprising ways. This creative blending is called intertextuality. Intertextuality can occur on a textual and visual level. In Example 1 below, COVID-19 is linked to the popular dance drama film Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta and the film’s soundtrack Stayin’ Alive (by Bee Gees). This example shows two layers of intertextuality – one being the combination of fever as one of the common symptoms of COVID-19 with the film title and the other is surviving COVID-19 with the soundtrack title, thereby creating a surprising blending of COVID-19 with a film reference.
Other examples of intertextuality highlighting other aspects of COVID-19 include the meme All of a sudden, everyone has become Sheldon, featuring the hygiene freak character Sheldon from the popular TV show Big Bang Theory spraying a disinfectant into the air and covering his mouth; another is a scene from the film The Shining highlighting isolation with family; and the arm cutting scene from Terminator 2 featured in another meme Me after washing my hands for 20 seconds for 57 times a day.
Wordplay is a productive source of humor in internet memes that involves the clever and witty use of words at the textual level. Wordplay techniques use multiple meanings and the similar sounds of words to create humorous effects. Some of the COVID-19 vocabulary that entered into our daily use of language has been subject to wordplay. One particular word, for example, is quarantine:
In Examples 2 and 3, we see a creative play on the –tine part of the word (quaran+tine) which results in new words and meanings quaran+tini – a martini to drink alone at home and quaran+teens – the hypothetical new generation of children conceived during COVID-19 as a result of people being quarantined at home. Another creative blend that we see in other memes for this new generation is coronials, resulting from a play on coronavirus and millennials.
Spelling is another fun wordplay technique that can lead to humorous creative blends. One example is the misspelling of the word quarantine as cornteen. Some argue that it may have originated from an actual misspelling of quarantine but it may also be used deliberately to joke about how the word might be pronounced in different regional dialects.
There have also been several puns on the word corona. The coronavirus is named after the Latin word for crown due to an exterior structure that features little crown-like spikes. The word corona is also the name of a Mexican beer that is named after the Sun’s corona. Corona being both a virus and a beer name has led to some humorous uptake by internet users. Below are some examples of pun on the corona beer:
I lost my grip, and my beer shattered on the floor
This Corona outbreak is really getting out of hand
A man walks into a bar and goes up to the bartender and says “I’ll have a Corona please, hold the virus”
(from Keep Laughing Forever)
According to Dictionary.com, rona—often in the phrase the rona—is a reduced form of coronavirus. Coronavirus is generally shortened to corona, which appears to be further shortened to rona. Rona is as a playful or ironic way to refer to COVID-19, especially when commenting on more relatable, humorous challenges of social distancing during the pandemic. There are examples of coronavirus being personified with the name rona, as can be seen in Example 7 below:
Another creative blend is COVID-19 and idiot, covidiot, a slang insult for someone who disregards health and safety guidelines about the coronavirus. Moronavirus, a similar blend derived from the words moron and coronavirus, is another quarantine shaming word. Example 8 is a meme in the form of a dictionary entry for covidiot and the US President Donald Trump is depicted as “moronavirus” in Example 9:
Internet memes frequently involve unexpected combinations of two or more elements, known as incongruity. Such juxtapositions significantly contribute to a meme’s success. In Example 10 below, a marine biologist working from home is featured. There are several opposing elements being creatively juxtaposed here which results in humor. One element is the context opposition – a marine biologist working in the ocean vs in a bathtub. The incongruity is intensified in the image due to the marine biologist wearing diving equipment. The textual part of the meme highlights and ridicules working from home due to the social isolation requirements as that would be impossible for a marine biologist.
One thing the current COVID-19 crisis shows us is that humor and creativity in online communication appears to be a helpful resource for people in coping with the psychological impacts of this pandemic. The myriad of memes on the internet show us that memetic humor is not just a coping mechanism in times of mass tragedy and uncertainty but at the same time a creative mechanism to engage with some complex social and political issues provoked by crisis situations.
Internet memes are also an ideal medium to express and hear multiple voices, identities and opinions of ordinary people. The kind of creativity we observe in internet memes also has important implications for the new ways we use language and subconsciously exploit various linguistic strategies to create humor.