If you’re young and hip like me, you’ll have come across the term dank meme, and know that a dank meme is a cool image or video that becomes popular. Goes viral, if you will.
Though the word meme is strongly associated with internet culture, it’s got a longer history than you might imagine. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 work on evolutionary biology, The Selfish Gene. It referred to an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads between individuals within a culture. A particular fashion or popular opinion that spreads quickly, like a virus, could be considered a meme. Dawkins came up with the theory of the meme in a book on evolution, as he considered that ideas could be under the same pressures to adapt and replicate as biological organisms.
It’s logical enough then, that the term has come to refer to an artefact of internet culture, whether it be a gif or an image macro, that spreads virally, but can also mutate and adapt itself to different contexts. But how on Earth could dank come to mean cool? Until very recently, the only meaning for dank I knew was unpleasantly damp and cold. After a little research (googling), I discovered that it came to be used by marijuana smokers to refer to high-quality product. Apparently, to make it really potent, one needs to keep it double-bagged. Storing it thusly reduces its exposure to light and air, thus making it cold and damp to the touch. Or dank.
It’s easy to complain about young people using neologisms we’ve never heard before, or using words with different meanings from what we expect. But there’s still always a logic lurking behind it. There aren’t many steps between dank as damp and cold, and dank as cool. So next time you hear some insufferable teenager refer to dank memes, just remember that they couldn’t do so with the expert knowledge of marijuana growers and a world-renowned evolutionary biologist.