[31 May 2009]
I first became aware of the strange phenomenon known as Lolcats during a visit to my niece who, at the tender age of two, seems to have cultivated an appreciation for viral video. She tends to repeatedly request a select handful of (G-Rated) YouTube clips, the relentlessly hummable melodies of which must surely haunt her parents during insomniac nights.
On this occasion, the video in question involved ridiculously adorable kittens and cats getting up to various hijinks – creating wobbly-pawed cacophony on a piano, popping mischievously out of a mailbox, curling up in the sink. It was, of course, seriously cute stuff, and the cats’ misadventures were a smash hit with my niece, who loves both cats and mischief.
But the most interesting aspect of this video, for me, was the part that was slightly over a two-year-old’s head: the captions. As our ornery kittens persisted in causing trouble, I noticed that their anthropomorphized thoughts were being expressed strangely. “I’m in UR basket, peein’ UR Cloze”, one caption declared, as a cat peered out from inside a laundry basket. Another caption, in conjunction with a photo of a cat sitting on some newspaper, said “U Want Sportz Seckshun?”
I was puzzled, intrigued, and glad my niece wasn’t learning to read from this stuff. “Why are these cats using such horrible grammar?” I asked, feeling stodgy and unreasonable. After all, they were kittens. “It’s an internet meme – grammatically incorrect kittens,” my brother-in-law said. “Very popular.”
As is my habit, the next time I got in front of my computer I looked it up. It took a while, since I really didn’t know what I was looking for. But eventually, my search led me to the proper term for this odd niche – LOLcats.
Wikipedia describes LOLcats as “…an image combining a photograph, most frequently of a cat, with a humorous and idiosyncratic caption in (often) broken English—a dialect which is known as ‘lolspeak,’ ‘kitteh,’ or ‘kitty pidgin’ and which parodies the poor grammar typically attributed to Internet slang.” It is apparently considered a type of “image macro” intended for “photo-sharing imageboards,” according to the Wikipedia page.
Although it debuted on my dull radar only recently, this cultural phenomenon has been around for about three or four years. It has skyrocketed to widespread popularity with the creation of the website I Can Has Cheezburger?, which displays various LOLcats photos, and allows site visitors to create their own.
The most popular LOLcats theme, from what I can tell, is the “I’m in UR ..” theme, in which a photo of a cat insinuating itself (unauthorized, of course) into its owner’s furniture, office supplies, or clothing items is accompanied by a cheeky announcement by the cat, in this odd language, that “I’m in UR toilet, usin’ UR Facilities,” or “Iz Mah House!”
Obviously, photo depictions of cats engaged in humorous mischief is hardly new – I remember the “Hang in There” kitten from my childhood, hanging precariously yet inspirationally from a tree branch. There were also posters of kittens with spaghetti absurdly dumped on their heads, accompanied by a caption like “Today just isn’t my day.” For some (probably not-too-complex reason), the anthropomorphizing of cats in photographs has long been a source of amusement.
But the odd combination of kitten images with internet or text-message speak was a new one, and it fascinated me. Why this particular convergence of technology and feline mischief?
It has been suggested that LOLcats is a sort of pidgin, an intermediary, simplified language meant to bridge the gap between human and feline “speech”. Apparently, it is assumed that cats spell atrociously and have tremendous difficulty with linking verbs.
“Think baby talk, but with a cat flair,” one LOLCats website advises. There seem to be certain rules to LOLCats misspellings – for example, in words that end in a silent ‘e’ preceded by a consonant, there tends to be a reversal of the last two letters. (cake, therefore, = caek.) Words ending in ‘y’ are generally changed to end in –eh (example, ‘kitty’ is ‘kitteh’). An introductory course in LOLCat is offered at lolcatbible.com.
The particular misspellings are interesting to me, since cats obviously can’t spell at all; I can only imagine they were chosen for the maximum cuteness or defiant nonchalance often attributed to our feline friends. Of course, the other key component to LOLcat language is the use of abbreviations like OMG, WTF, and BRB. This seems to mark an interesting evolution in the anthropomorphizing of cats – they’re no longer just just hapless daredevils with a faint contempt for their owners and for dogs; now they think in the vernacular of surly, text-messaging teens.
LOLCats seem to be tech-savvy, and frequently allude to pop culture trends and contemporary celebrities. “I Iz Not Kanye West!” one sunglasses-wearing cat is captioned as saying. Another photo, featuring a kitten surrounded by four fuzzy little chicks (adorable factor through the roof) says, “I ordrd teh 6-peece chikn nuggtz, u owez me 2 nuggtz, plz kthx.”
The only semi-plausible theory I’ve developed for this linguistic fusion of cats and internet speak has something to do with the cool, alienating reputation of cats, you know, their depiction as being aloof, unpredictable and wily. Cats, it seems often leave us just as bewildered as technology does. Although technology is supposed to be in our service, we often find ourselves in conflicted, uncomfortably dependent relationships with it. Cats, likewise, are supposedly our pets, yet they often seem to be smugly in charge of us, their so-called “owners”.
Or perhaps using cute kittens in this manner is a comfortable way for us to purge our anxieties about the increasingly intimidating nature of modern technology. Of course, it could just be that cats and weird internet slang are just plain funny.
But alas, there’s more to the LOLCat universe than mere defiance and random napping; there also seems to be some sort of theological structure in place. An interesting character featured in the meme is “Ceiling Cat”, which apparently originated in a photo of a cat looking down from a hole in a ceiling. The caption for this photo was “Ceiling Cat is watching you masturbate,” and has yielded several variations involving Ceiling Cat “watching” in an omnipresent, godlike manner.
Ceiling Cat’s counterpart, Basement Cat, is a black cat that lives in a basement, and is thought to represent Satan, according to the Wikipedia entry. These characters are further utilized in an incredibly strange offshoot of LOLCats, the LOLCat Bible Translation Project, a “project designed to translate the entire bible into kitty pidgin English.”
The project, launched in 2007, has been a collaborative effort and is apparently nearing completion. The book of Genesis begins thus: “Boreded Ceiling Cat makinkgz Urf n stuffs: 1 Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem. 2 Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz. 3 At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz.”
The New Testament is also translated, with the original LOLcat known as Happy Cat, depicted as Jesus, “who gets called Christ, liek all teh time. Srsly.” I have to admit, I can’t stop reading it; I’m transfixed. The sheer magnitude of the undertaking, combined with the undeniable weirdness of it, is addictive.
The creators of the project ultimately aim to see it published into an actual Bible. The translation is projected to number in the thousands of pages, “with possible pictures”. In a FAQ section asking “Why publish it?,” the response was “Why not?”
And why not, indeed? It could be argued that a LOLCats Bible could represent a reimagining of the world’s origins through a distinctly modern lens. It could at once depict the long history of Christianity and the existential emptiness of an era in which astronauts post Twitter updates from space that say “launch was awesome!”
I would keep happily keep the LOLCats Bible on my coffee table, where my cats would use it as a piece of furniture while thinking something like, “I iz sleeping on UR Bible.” I really would keep it on display in my home. I swear to Ceiling Cat. Srsly.