By now, you’ve probably come across the new meme of complimenting glamorous women with cryptically-written tweets that incorporate the words “slay”, “mother” and “cunt/cunty”, while also sometimes referencing huge world events. It’s pretty hard to explain the grammar of the tweets (because yes, there actually is a grammar being utilised), but here is an example: “omg she used the slayper rifle to shoot the mother bullet into the head of john f cuntedy.”
The meme’s been around for a couple of weeks, but really rocketed to post-ironic slaydom during the Golden Globes, when celebrities flaunted their beautiful outfits and therefore prompted a wave of adoring fanfare from netizens online. I mean, only Margot Robbie could elicit such creativity in the compliment-giving department. I, too, would learn a new meme style just to more accurately convey her beauty.
However, to say the meme sprouted in recent weeks would be inaccurate. In some ways, its roots have actually been around for decades. And it turns out we actually are employing a new language style when we manipulate this meme to make it our own, according to sociolinguistics expert Dr Christian Ilbury.
“One of the reasons I’m interested in memes is because they acquire their own linguistic style and grammar,” he told PEDESTRIAN.TV.
“People don’t just come out and say ‘slayed’ or ‘mother’ in random ways. They use it in ways that look systematic, and adhere to kind of the grammar of the meme, right?”
Interestingly, if you go through the memes, you’ll notice they all have a similar syntax and sentence structure.
“So, in order to produce a meme within this genre, you have to be able to recognise what the meaning of that meme is. You have to be proficient in the language style that’s associated with the meme,” he explained.
“And so that’s why it’s really interesting for me as a linguist, because you get these groups that become aware of the meme style, and then produce it in such a way that looks like they’re proficient in this style. This isn’t just like some kind of random weird way of speaking or writing. It does look quite, you know, linguistically interesting… [the memes] adhere to a grammar.”
It turns out creating your own grammar online is something we’ve been doing since the internet began.
Remember when we used to write like “can i haz cheezburger”? Or “much big. many scare. wow”? Yep, Ilbury said “lol cat” and “doge” were the precursors — or mothers, you could say — to these new memes, and we’ll probably get just as sick of them as time passes.
The history of “mother” is rooted in Black ballroom culture, and once meant something deeper
All memes must die, but we might not see “mother” experience the same rapid death as, say, “cunt”. Because unlike doge and lolcat memes, “mother” has a history outside of the internet — specifically in African American and Latina ballroom culture.
“It’s basically a culture where people walk in these balls that originated in New York, in Black and Latina communities. And [words like mother are] associated with that culture and would have likely originated within it at that time, over quite a long time actually, but we tend to think of it as more recent [because] it kind of diffused out more generally into drag circles,” Ilbury said.
“I think it’s really within the last three or four years where that word specifically has become more generally part of what people think of as an ‘Internet style’, or ‘Gen Z language’. I don’t think people really realise that actually, it’s gone through quite a lot of change and evolution to get to the point now where it’s pretty much just used everywhere on the internet.”
Ilbury explained that while “mother” is now an almost generic “mildly positive” descriptor, it originated with a “much stronger” meaning.
“Mother had this original meaning [that meant] ‘the mother of the house’ and it really is someone that you looked up to, and like cared for you and stepped up in place of your own biological mother. And then now we see the point of it being used in a way that has a much weaker semantic meaning.”
Unlike “mother”, “cunt”/”cunty” has had the opposite effect — it is now a positive descriptor when in other contexts it’s a vile insult. This, Ilbury said, is a reclamation much like “slut”, which has also been reclaimed by women.
“Mother”, “slay” and cultural appropriation
I asked Dr Ilbury if the gentrification of the word “mother” is a form of cultural appropriation — and it turns out it is, in a way.
“You’ve basically had the diffusion of largely African American Vernacular English and queer language from that culture into more general mainstream language,” he said.
“I do think it has gone through appropriation. To the point where I would call like an “indexical erasure”.
“Indexicality means that language refers to things beyond language itself, right? It refers to social things like who uses it ,and with African American Vernacular English, the indexicality is obvious, right? It’s African Americans. People are not aware that words like “mother” or “slay” or” “yas” or “ate” [are] from African American English and I think we’re losing that association.”
But that being said, the slay mother cunt memes are still hilarious and fun to study from a linguists perspective — especially because their very form represents queerness.
“We’re trying to queer language in the same way that we’re queering our lives,” Ilbury said.
“Being a queer person means that you are already distinctive. And our language styles have always been distinctive, because we’re trying to set ourselves apart. Like, that’s how you create queer culture. And so, like, if you look at this language, and you look at the way that we give compliments, I think that’s, you know, interesting because each culture has distinctive ways of giving compliments.”
Well there ya have it folks. These slay mother cunt memes aren’t just memes — they’re a self-expression, a form of language, and the latest trend that can be dated back decades.
The internet is a wild place, and I love it.
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