Book Preview: There’s more to cat memes than Internet LOLcats

What’s slowing down completion of the ebook, with 50 facts about domestic cats and where they come from, is that these last chapters I had intended to base on blog posts, and those old posts just aren’t that good; I’m having to rewrite almost every one. Here’s the final version of the one on cat memes–hope you enjoy it!

Does your phone or tablet have curved edges? That’s a meme.

According to the website Know Your Meme, Apple came out with curved edges on its iMac G3 in the late 90s. Everybody loved the look and everybody copied it. Today all portable computers must have curved edges, even though there’s no practical use for them.

Memes are a cultural thing that catch on and persist. The word comes from the same root as “mimic,” and that’s what we do–see something we like, copy it, and share it with other people.

Add in cats, and you might break the Internet!

What are LOLcats?

Short answer: Images, often captioned in broken English called “lolspeak,” of funny-looking cats. The earliest ones, without lolspeak, are from the 1870s; true LOLcats became an Internet phenomenon in the 21st century.

Details: Whoever introduced Happy Cat–the image of an eager-looking gray-blue British Shorthair–in the early 2000s probably wasn’t thinking about the Victorian era at the time.

And when someone captioned Happy Cat with “I Can Has Cheezburger?” in 2007, they pioneered both LOLcats and the Cheezburger meme-making website; however, they likely were unaware that someone in England had published almost 200 similar images over a century earlier.

Back in the 1860s, Victorians were wild about both cats and a new technology called photography.

They held the first cat shows in London’s Crystal Palace–a gorgeous glass/iron/wood exhibition hall that just had been featured in a popular photographic essay.

This being Victorian England, society people used formal visiting cards. Now, everyone wanted photographs on those cards, and a cat lover/retired soldier in Brighton named Harry Pointer opened a studio, thinking that visiting cards with cat images would sell well.

He was correct.

Pointer’s cat pictures range from traditional poses to silly things like cats rollerskating. Some have captions, generally greeting-card sentiments like “Happy New Year,” but occasionally humor like “Bring up the dinner, Betsy” on an image of three cats sitting by an empty dish.

In the early 20th century, another Harry, an American named Harry Whittier Frees, became famous for his pictures of cats and other animals in human clothes and posed in human-like situations. These sometimes were captioned, too.

A few amateurs tried it, too, but the trend didn’t last.

Meme evolution has been compared to the biological kind, including extinction when no one is left to carry the thing on. Whittier Frees died in 1953, and that seems to have been the end of captioned kitty pictures for the rest of the century.

During the 1970s, a cartoon cat hanging onto a branch with the caption “Hang in there, baby!” was popular for a while. And in 1976, author Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme.”

This word’s meaning is debatable, but here is today’s Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition:

  1. An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.
  2. An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

That second definition is from the turn of the 21st century.

The earliest Internet memes–reaction faces, slang like LOL (“laugh out loud” or “lots of laughs”), and emojis–first showed up on 4chan and reddit. So did Caturday, a Saturday posting of funny cat pictures.

Happy Cat goes back to 2003, and in 2007, the Happy Cat/I Can Has Cheezburger meme went viral.

Today there are countless Internet cat memes. Sites like Cheezburger and Meme Generator exist to make even more of them.

Some are in GIF or video format: for example, Nyan cat (a Russian Blue) and Maru (a Scottish Fold living in Japan and owner of a Guinness record for YouTube views).

Still images include (but certainly aren’t limited to) Grumpy Cat (who has physical deformities), Ceiling Cat/Basement Cat feline theologists, the Itteh Bitteh Kitteh Committee, and Lime Cat (the writer’s personal favorite–what’s yours?).

Are there other cat memes?

Short answer: Technically, no; only Internet LOLcats are memes, and perhaps also the Chinese combination of cats and butterflies. But there are additional possibilities, if we don’t rule out people who have shared cat imagery but didn’t live in the Internet age.

Details: First, you might be wondering about those Chinese cats and butterflies.

Per the blogger at Poemas del Río Wang,

…[in Chinese] the word 貓 māo cat is a homonym of 耄 mào “eighty-ninety years old”, so [cat] paintings were a perfect gift for a birthday. Especially if they also represented a 蝶 dié butterfly, because then the names of the two figures, pronounced loud, also had the meaning 耄耋 màodié “very long old age”.

Some modern Chinese artists have changed the meme a bit by showing Chairman Mao with a cat’s head, since 毛 “mao” can also mean “hair/fur.”

The wild world of Internet cat memes that we know best is a 21st-century phenomenon, encouraged by the spread of digital cameras as well as the Internet.

But technology isn’t a requirement for OED’s first definition of a meme (sharing cat imagery through imitation or other non-genetic means). What’s missing is the concept’s framework, which Dawkins provided for the Information Age in the 1970s.

For instance, Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings often show a cat underneath the chair a woman is seated on. Is it a meme?

Probably not. It wasn’t spontaneous and the artists weren’t amateurs copying something they enjoyed. They painted to order and were transmitting important information about that woman and her home.

But Puss in Boots might be a candidate. After all, story-telling is probably the world’s oldest social medium.

This well-shod feline first appeared in fifth-century India as part of a collection of Hindu tales. Originally, it was a cat seeking its fortune. By the time Puss had reached Europe, over a thousand years later, it had morphed into a helpful feline trickster.

Witches’ cats could be included, too. Today’s cat memes are fun, but in very different circumstances they might instead inspire strong negative emotions, like the fear and hatefulness of witch-hunting hysteria in medieval Europe.

There are other possibilities, too. Let’s close on a happy note by imagining a “Library Cat” meme site. Only, back in the day, they used words, not photographs.

Ancient scholars dedicated poems to their cats, including Lu Yu in 8th-century China, as well as whatever European monk wrote this to his white cat in the 9th century:

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

And so we also live in the 21st century, in part thanks to our shared enjoyment of cat memes!

Featured image: An HTTP status cat meme, by Totomi (a/k/a Girlie Mac), CC BY 2.0.


Chen, C. 2012. The creation and meaning of Internet memes in 4chan: Popular internet culture in the age of online digital reproduction. Habitus, 3:6-19.

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Know Your Meme. 2015. Happy Cat. Last accessed September 30, 2018.

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Milner, R. M. 2012. The world made meme: Discourse and identity in participatory media. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Kansas.)

Myrick, J. G. 2015. Emotion regulation, procrastination, and watching cat videos online: Who watches Internet cats, why, and to what effect? Computers in Human Behavior. 52:168-176.

Oxford English Dictionary. 2018. Meme. Last accessed September 30, 2018.

Poemas del Río Wang. 2010. Chinese cats. Last accessed September 30, 2018.

Romer, J./Central Productions, Channel Four. 1984. Ancient Lives. TV mini-series.

Sussex PhotoHistory Home Page. n.d. Harry Pointer–Brighton photographer. Last accessed September 30, 2018.

___. n. d. Harry Pointer’s Brighton Cats. Last accessed September 30, 2018.

Verrier, R. October 29, 2011. ‘Puss in Boots’ showcases work by India animators for DreamWorkds. Los Angeles Times. Last accessed January 4, 2018.

Wikipedia. 2018. The Crystal Palace. Last accessed September 30, 2018.

___. 2018. Harry Whittier Frees. Last accessed September 30, 2018.

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