Spending a lot of time online?
Then you’ve probably started seeing the same pictures over and over again.
Welcome to the internet! You’ve discovered memes.
Many of these repeated pictures have white writing on them.
Some make sense, others seem to be complete nonsense.
Here, we are going to talk about memes and how they can be your new favorite tool for learning English.
That means you will learn about language and culture in the English-speaking world.
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What Are Memes?
A meme (pronounced “meem”) is an image, video or text that people share over the internet. Each time the meme is shared, it is usually a little different. The image is the same, but the text is changed to express a different idea or to describe a different situation.
Maybe you have seen memes used in your native language. If not, you have probably seen the most famous memes on the internet. Even if you did not know their names, you will probably recognize some famous examples like Grumpy Cat or the troll face.
A meme is kind of like a cold: one person gets it and shares it with his friends. Those friends share it with their friends. All of a sudden, the entire internet knows the face of one cat.
Many people might not realize that the word “meme” existed before the internet. It was used to refer to a part of culture or an idea that is passed down from one person to another through imitation (copying). It actually comes from the word “mimema,” which means “to imitate” in Greek.
They are created by copying and imitation, so memes are very repetitive: they’re used over and over again, sometimes with very few differences. You’ll see the same words and phrases used repeatedly, with similar meanings or the same structure.
This is great for learning English.
For example, the meme above always expresses uncertainty or doubt about a situation. The situation may change, but the feeling is always the same. He’s not sure if one thing is true or if another thing is true. The structure is repeated, and different words are added.
Learn the Coolest English Vocabulary from 21 Internet Memes
Now that you understand what a meme is, let’s look at how to learn English vocabulary from memes.
How to Learn English Vocabulary from Memes
Pay attention to the memes you see on social media websites. You will probably see many memes on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Take note of how they are used in the comments sections of blogs, articles and online forums.
Try following this this Reddit page devoted to memes. Reddit is a place where people share content from all over the internet, including tons and tons of great memes. How do people use them on this website? Start investigating!
If you’re confused by a meme, you can look it up. Check out the meme database, Know Your Meme. It is like a complete dictionary just for memes, and you can find almost any meme on this website.
Be careful with memes. Sometimes memes use crude language and cursing. Many times, memes also use poor English or bad grammar on purpose to be funny. As with many parts of culture, there are still things you can learn from these silly images and phrases. Just make sure that your new words and phrases are correct before using them in real life.
Focus on the vocabulary in memes. You already learned at least one English word from memes since you started this article—the word “meme!” There are many more vocabulary words that you can learn from memes. By becoming familiar with memes, you will also be more familiar with current internet culture. This will make it easier to communicate with modern English speakers.
Focus on your favorite memes. Once you have some favorite memes, search Reddit, Know Your Meme and Google Images for more examples of the same meme. You’ll get to see how this meme is used to express different ideas, which helps you build vocabulary in different contexts.
New English Vocabulary You Can Learn from Memes
When an image or video becomes very popular very quickly, you can say that it “goes viral.” On the internet, the word viral describes something that spreads very quickly and is seen by many, many people.
The internet sensation Gangnam Style, by Korean rapper Psy, is a viral video. It was the first video on YouTube to get 1 billion views, and it now has over 2 billion!
Offline, the word viral comes from the word virus. A virus is like a bacteria: it infects a body. The common cold is caused by a virus. Remember how we said that a meme is like a cold? Both memes and colds are viral—they spread quickly from one person to another.
The HBO fantasy show “Game of Thrones” gave us this next meme phrase: “Brace yourselves, winter is coming!”
The meme repeats the phrase “Brace yourselves, ________is coming.” It uses the image from an advertisement with “Game of Thrones” character Ned Stark.
But what does brace mean?
The way it is used in this meme image, the phrase “brace yourself” means “prepare yourself” or, more simply, “get ready!”
A brace is something that holds an object or structure in place.
When you brace yourself for something, you’re putting yourself in a position where you will not be blown away, moved or surprised. You can literally “brace your feet against” something to keep your balance. You can also figuratively “brace yourself” for something bad like the loss of a job.
3. Overly attached
The Overly Attached Girlfriend meme is a girl with big eyes who says some crazy things. She is meant to be an exaggeration—a much more intense version—of people who get too attached to other people.
The image actually comes from a video that makes fun of people like that. The funny girl in the video says things like, “I’m going to make you stay with me, and I’ll be mad if you don’t.” If you hear something like that in real life…run!
You might have heard about the troll that lived under the bridge.
It is an old story about an ugly monster who usually lives in caves (or under bridges) and demands money from anyone who wants to pass by.
The meaning of the word changed a little thanks to the internet. Now a troll is someone who makes offensive or mean comments on the internet. These mean comments are written just to make others mad and upset. Online trolls find it fun to watch others get angry!
The online meme for trolls uses a grinning (smiling) face. It can be used to describe any situation or person that seems unfair or that makes you upset.
Trolls want to see you react badly to their mean comments. You might then say, “I will not let him affect me. He was just trolling me.” Behaving like a troll, on the internet and in real life, can be called trolling. It is probably best to ignore people who do this!
There is a legend (traditional story) that tells of a tall, thin man wearing a black suit who follows children. This man has many long arms coming out of his back which he can stretch out very long.
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? People on the internet thought so.
The word slender does not have a negative definition. Slender describes someone or something that is thin or narrow, often in a graceful way. If someone has a thin neck, you can call it slender. Fingers can be slender too.
6. Creep / Creepy / Creeper
If someone creeps up on you while you’re doing something, you might be surprised or scared. To creep up on someone means to move towards someone slowly and carefully so they can’t hear or see you.
In the video game Minecraft, a creeper is a green monster who creeps up on you and explodes! The creeper meme, shown above, is the Minecraft monster’s face. The meme usually says “That sure is a nice X you have there, it would be a shame if anything happened to it.” These little creepers want to take or destroy all the nice things that you have.
In real life, you can call someone a creep or a creeper. These are not nice things to call people. You should only call someone a creep or a creeper when they are behaving inappropriately. Both words mean the same thing, but creeper is a slang word.
You can also say that someone or something is creepy. This means that it makes you feel uneasy or a little afraid. For example, if you hear someone walking in your house when you’re alone, that would be creepy.
When someone is condescending, they act like they know more than you. They are looking down on you. For example, if you mention that you’re learning English to someone and they respond by saying “oh, you must think you know everything,” they are being condescending to you.
Condescending Wonka is a meme which uses a picture from the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and has condescending phrases written on it.
It often makes fun of people’s beliefs and behavior by being condescending. It mostly makes fun of people who are trying to look smarter, better or more special than they really are.
This type of humor is very sarcastic and very American (and British).
8. Legitimate / Legit
Something legitimate is something real or official. For example, you need to have a legitimate reason for calling the police. Your reason needs to be real!
Online and in the real world, the word legitimate has been shortened to legit. This slang word is used very commonly.
The funny meme above was created using legit. This is a very common meme which is called “Seems Legit.”
In these memes, the phrase “seems legit” is paired with pictures of things that look very fake or suspicious. In the meme above, these two men are definitely not in Hollywood. But the “Hollywood” sign behind them is supposed to make us think that they are in the real Hollywood. Seems legit, right?
Grumpy Cat is an adorably negative kitty that always looks like she’s in a bad mood. Did you know that Grumpy Cat’s real name is Tardar Sauce?
Grumpy is the feeling you get when you wake up way too early on a Saturday morning. Or you might feel very grumpy when you did not eat lunch and are really, really hungry. When you’re grumpy, you’re easily annoyed, hate everything and want to be alone.
Meet the Paranoid Parrot, a bird who overreacts to everything.
Paranoid people have many crazy fears. They often think that people are talking badly about them. They might think someone innocent is trying to kill them. Basically, a paranoid person doesn’t trust normal people and things.
Sometimes paranoid can be used in a casual way. If a friend is worrying a lot about something that is not really a big problem, you might tell them that they’re “just being paranoid.” That means that there is no real reason to worry.
“How I Met Your Mother” is a hilarious (very funny) TV show where a man spends 9 seasons telling his kids how he met their mother. At least, that’s what the description of the show would say. Really it is about the guy’s life with his great friends.
One of these friends is Barney Stinson, who loves women and nice suits. His favorite word is legendary.
Something legendary is very famous or respected by many people. It is a bigger word than “famous.” It is something that might become a legend, or something amazing that people will talk about for years.
You can use the word legendary when you’re describing something that you think is very awesome, like an incredible party you’re going to have. “It is going to be legendary!”
This word is used often in many memes, and in casual English conversation. Look at the next meme to see an example.
12. Wait for it
This is another great phrase that is used by Barney from “How I Met Your Mother.”
The words themselves are common. You already know that wait for can be used in any situation where you need to spend some time before you can get something. For example, you can “wait for the bus” or “wait for my friend to call me.”
But saying “wait for it” is also a way to make someone more excited about what you’re going to say. You’re asking them to wait, which means the information is really good. You can put it in the middle of a sentence, as in: “I have decided that I am going to—wait for it—become a doctor!” This makes the other person anticipate (look forward to) the rest of your sentence.
Barney sometimes uses this phrase in the middle of a word, like you can see in this great clip from the TV show. In the meme above, he puts wait for it in the middle of the word legendary.
“It is going to be legen—wait for it—dary!” This makes the word even more extreme and exciting.
A baby in the show is even named Marvin Waitforit Eriksen. Doesn’t that just make his name more awesome?
Something foul is disgusting, unpleasant and just plain bad.
Your socks after a gym workout might smell foul. If someone uses a lot of curse words, they are foul-mouthed. Someone foul is dirty or disgusting, either physically or in the way they act.
The meme above is called the Foul Bachelor Frog. It is about bachelors (single men) who are not very pleasant to be around. They do disgusting things because they live alone.
This brings me to our next meme vocabulary lesson.
14. Bachelor / Bachelorette
A bachelor is a man who is not married. A bachelorette is a woman who is not married.
Sometimes these words are used to mean that someone is available for a relationship. Other times they are used to describe the lifestyle of someone who is only interested in having fun, going to parties and being involved with different people.
The single lifestyle for men and women is similar. There is a Foul Bachelorette Frog too, as seen in the meme above.
In American marriages, it is traditional for the bride to have a bachelorette party while the groom has a bachelor party. At these parties, they go out with their same-sex friends and have one last night of being single and unmarried—the bride goes out with her girlfriends, the groom goes out with all his male buddies.
These parties can be legendary!
A slowpoke is someone who takes a long, long time to do things.
When someone is being very slow, you can tell them: “hurry up, slowpoke!”
Another kind of slowpoke is a character from the very popular TV show and video game series Pokémon. In Pokémon, a slowpoke is a very slow-moving animal who also doesn’t seem very smart. This Pokémon character is used in the Slowpoke meme.
The Slowpoke meme always makes statements that are “old news.” The things written on this meme are things that everyone already learned a long, long time ago. The meme usually starts with the words “hey guys, did you hear…?”
A throwback is something that reminds you of the past.
Think back to the toys, games, candies and other things from your childhood. Even better, look up pictures of the items or commercials for them. Doesn’t that make you feel nostalgic, when you can pleasantly remember the past? A throwback can do that for you! It throws you back in time.
When someone shows you their old Britney Spears CD, you can say, “wow, what a throwback!”
Throwback Thursday is a tag used on some social media websites like Tumblr and Instagram, where people post pictures on Thursdays of things from their pasts, like toys they had when they were growing up. The tag is often written as #tbt, which stands for Throwback Thursday.
“I have a confession to make…”
If you start a sentence that way, it means you’re about to share something that is private, secret or embarrassing. It can also mean that you are going to admit that you did something wrong or committed a crime.
For example: “I have a confession to make…I ate the last cookie.” How terrible!
The Confession Bear doesn’t care about who ate the last cookie. This meme is used to share confessions that people can’t say in public because others might make fun of them or think bad things about them.
Since there’s something satisfying about sharing personal thoughts anonymously (without anyone knowing who you are), the confession bear has been very popular. More confession memes came from this. Terrible Tiger is another meme that makes confessions—and it also makes fun of Confession Bear:
There is also a Confession Kid meme, where people share silly things they used to believe when they were children:
19. Politically correct
Many people today worry about being politically correct. This is important for people who have very public lives, like celebrities and politicians. Being politically correct means choosing the way you say things carefully so that you don’t offend any group of people.
For example, in America the politically correct way to refer to people with African ancestry (family history) is to say African Americans. This is because many other terms were used negatively in the past and they can upset people.
You need to learn one more word to understand the meme above. This word is redneck.
In American culture, a redneck is a stereotype: it is a term used to describe a person who lives in a small, rural town (and not a big city) and is uneducated. This person may have some opinions that offend people because he or she is not very educated.
A redneck would probably call African Americans by a more rude term, for example. Actually, calling someone a redneck is not politically correct either, because it is a word based on stereotypes and can be very negative and offensive.
Now let’s talk about the meme above. It is known as The Almost Politically Correct Redneck. This meme shows a man who looks like a typical redneck. The line on top is politically correct, but the bottom line turns the statement into something offensive.
For example, a meme like this might say: “it doesn’t matter to me if your skin is yellow, black, orange…or normal.” This sentence starts out good (any skin color is okay), but in the end it suggests that other skin colors are not “normal.”
You may have noticed that the almost politically correct meme can sometimes say things that are opposites. When two things are opposites, they contradict each other.
The Contradiction Chris meme has some excellent examples of contradictions. The meme follows the pattern “I hate_____but I love_____.” Usually the two thing here are very similar or related.
It started when a man uploaded a video to YouTube in which he said “I hate religion, but I love Jesus.” Jesus is part of religion, making this a contradiction.
Some other examples are: “I hate vegetables, but I love broccoli” and “I hate soda but I love coca-cola.”
Have you ever made a decision and then realized later that it was a bad decision?
You might remember that bad decision and think, “I should not have done that!”
When you understand something after it has already happened, that’s called hindsight.
Some people say that “hindsight is 20/20,” which means that hindsight gives you “perfect vision.”
You got wet in the rain? You should have taken an umbrella! That seems obvious now, doesn’t it? It did not seem obvious when you left your house to walk to work.
This brings us to the meme above. This meme uses the superhero Captain Hindsight! Created by the adult cartoon “South Park,” Captain Hindsight appears after a situation is already over and states what is usually very obvious.
Internet memes are a part of online culture, and reading them can help you learn about language and culture in the English-speaking world.
They’re also a great resource for learning colloquial (everyday, informal) English.
Start with these 21 awesome words and keep learning!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you like learning English from authentic (real) sources, then you’ve got to try FluentU.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. These are videos that your students already love watching, so they’ll be beyond excited to interact with them in the classroom.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
Worried that students might be stumped by some of the harder videos? No way. FluentU brings authentic content within reach by providing interactive captions and in-context definitions right on-screen. For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
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