In the internet meme war between cats and dogs, the dogs are currently winning. The "doge" meme features an image (often of an adorable shiba dog), annotated with distinctive phrases representing the thoughts of the dog — or the dragon, or whatever is being depicted. What has the internet gained in its move from LOLcats to doges?
Obviously, doges share a lot with LOLcats. Both come in the form of easily-shared images with brief jokes on them, written in a distinctive, non-grammatical style. Know Your Meme has a terrific history of the doge meme, which, like the LOLcat originated with the cute picture of a specific animal and then exploded from there.
If you recall, this was the original LOLcat, asking, "I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER?" That image is all but forgotten, though the Cheezburger meme has become (literally) a media empire devoted to fun stuff online.
Below you can see the original doge, a beautiful Shiba who is the color of a Twinkie. He still lingers in many doge memes, though he's slowly being phased out of newer ones like the Smaug doge at the top of this post.
Also like LOLcats, doges have a distinctive font and style. LOLcats use a blocky, mostly all-caps font, with statements appearing either at the top of the image or the bottom — or both. Generally, a LOLcat statement is something you're supposed to imagine the cat (or whatever) saying out loud, or it functions as a caption. Doge images feature comic sans, often in different sizes and colors, positioned around the subject of the photo. They are intended to be like thoughts, floating around in the mind of the doge — or in the mind of the person looking at it.
Just as certain words recur in LOLcat pictures — everything from LOL and "I can haz" to "I'm in ur" and grumpy cat's many sayings — the doge has verbal tics. Saying "wow" is practically compulsory. As is remarking on how everything is really, really . . . something. "So" and "very" and "such" and "much" will begin many doge-speak phrases.
LOLcat has been around long enough to turn into its own language, with a vocabulary so large that it's come to encompass many ideas, and even a few non-cat animals like the walrus with his bukkit. Though dogs do not really exist in the LOLcat universe, God (I mean Ceiling Cat) does — there's even a Bible written entirely in LOLcat.
Still, doge is developing its own grammatical quirks and visual style that take us in a very different direction from LOLcats. Doges don't make pronouncements. They make vague, impressionistically connected comments. The doge often brings to mind the kinds of comments made by a stoner ("wow"), whereas there's no doubt that LOLcats are pretty much always drunks — and, as the popularity of Grumpy Cat makes clear, they're mean drunks to boot.
And I'm not the only one who has noticed this sea change in what our memes allow us to express.
Last week, I tweeted this:
And just like that, we all stopped speaking LOLcat and started speaking doge. Wow. Much changes. Very linguistic trends.
— Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen) December 3, 2013
It got re-tweeted and commented on almost 40 thousand times, which is a lot for a humble science journalist like myself. Then it got picked up on the Lingua Fandom Tumblr, where it garnered almost 23 thousand notes (wow! such comments!). On that Tumblr, cinquespotted observed that doge may be linguistically simpler than LOLcat, but seems to express more complicated ideas:
I'm actually not convinced that doge is a more difficult syntax, actually; I think the opposite is true, at least from a purely grammatical/syntactical perspective . . .
Doge possesses no verbs, even after the markers (here, the intensifiers) are introduced. LOLcat, on the other hand, has at least four different identifiable verb forms; it has the copula, the present tense, the progressive, and a simplified past tense in which all endings are resolved to -ed (e.g. "i made you a cookie but i eated it")*.
(*—I'm aware that I'm mixing tense and aspect here, which is why I use "forms" and not either tense or aspect, as my aim is to show the variety of functions the verb can appear in within a LOLcat expression.)
On the other hand, LOLcat tends to not take compounds, be they compound nouns, adjective-noun pairs, or even non-compounded noun abstractions (i.e. in the LOLphilosophers meme, you would be more likely to see "im in ur base, challenging ur superstructure" than "im in ur episteme, exposin the prduction of scientifik knowlidg"). (Both dialects seem to eschew prepositional phrases equally so that's a draw.)
Basically—doge seems to have a simpler, or at least more regimented, grammatical structure than LOLcat, which in turn seems to allow it to explore more complex philosophical ideas.
Doge does in fact use verbs, but its fundamental structure — such words! so thinking! wow! — is mostly nouns and adjectives. It's a meme of contemplation rather than action. Which makes sense, given that doge is supposed to capture the act of thinking.
Very change. So psychological theory.
Still, it may be a difficult transition from LOLcat to doge. The usual meme generators are racing to keep up, and are offering doge meme generators that look suspiciously like LOLcat generators with LOLcat crossed out and Doge written in with crayon. Over at MemeGenerator, the Doge page offers you the distinctive LOLcat typeface, instead of comic sans, and only allows you to type in LOLcat regions of the photo — top and bottom, instead of in many sizes scattered randomly over the image:
WeKnowMemes gets the scattered text right, but still gives you LOLcat font:
It seems that the syntax of doge is easier to master than the style. WebRender is the preferred Doge generator of Reddit, for good reason — this one gets it right. You've got multiple colors, scattered blips in comic sans, and the result is a quick-and-dirty Doge.
The fact is that the doge meme is new enough that there aren't a lot of places online that will help you make your own doge — though there are a lot of arguments over what the hell this meme is, and how to pronounce it.
It's not clear whether this meme is going to endure online and explode into the manyfold wonder of LOLcats, or if it's just the sort of meme that takes off and dies out the way "All your base" did a decade ago.
Over at The American Scholar, psychologist Jessica Love observes that both LOLcat and doge are part of a larger subset of grammatical humor:
According to one psychological theory, humor is fundamentally about detecting something that violates our expectations, but in a nonthreatening way. That's why someone getting mauled by a bear in a shopping mall is funny—unless it just happened to you. A hundred years from now, your descendants will find your mauling hilarious. Sorry, but it's true.
Given grammar's relatively low stakes, then, it is fodder for immediate humor . . . Our grammatical knowledge is so deeply ingrained in us that we can't help but detect these violations even when we're in some sense expecting them.
At least to my ear (and Laurel, a fellow psycholinguist, agrees), this brand of humor is at its keenest when the grammatical violation awkwardly disrupts—but doesn't break—the logic of the sentence. This means that some grammatical elements are riper for improvised manipulation than others. Subject-verb agreement, for instance, can often be violated without a great loss in comprehensibility (I is eating), as can past-tense regularization or double-irregularization (I maded that) and the grammatical distinction between count and mass nouns (I'll have all the cheeses! Just one chee for me.). In contrast, swapping around the logical operators if and then or and and or, for instance, would likely break the logic of the sentence, making that kind of spontaneous manipulation less likely.
I have a feeling that doge might have the same potential to endure and grow as LOLcat for two simple reasons.
One, LOLcat has always always left half the internet population out in the cold. Dog lovers have nothing to challenge the supremacy of the self-satisfied, grumpy, lazy, weird cat. Where are the monorail dogs and invisibl bike poodles? Nowhere. Until now. At last, we have doge.
And two, doge allows us to express something that LOLcat never did. LOLcats are devoted to abrupt exclamations, rude proclamations, and simple assertions. Doge lets us express our dreamy, muddled thoughts in all their complexity. They let us literally represent how a picture can be worth a thousand words, rather than just a brief LOL caption.
The doge is the antithesis of the LOLcat — the expansive wow to its greedy "can haz." Doges bring a subversive plurality to the LOLcat's stark, single statements. At last the dog lovers and philosophers among us have a meme of our own.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9, and this is her column. She is also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.