In the very likely case that you're on the Internet right now, you already know what a "meme" is. But you may not realize that the concept -- a meaningless phrase, image or joke getting repeated endlessly for no reason at all -- predates the Internet generation by a long shot. Although it was more difficult for a phrase or image to "go viral" before all this technology, pointless memes still found their way to every corner of the globe. Such as ...
7"Kilroy was Here"
When you consider how many people spent their time either killing or getting killed during both world wars, it's easy to see how the issue of graffiti would go largely overlooked. Which is why, after the dust settled, people all over the world began to wonder who "Kilroy" was and why he had graffitied the hell out of their continents.
That cartoon face with that phrase would appear spray-painted on walls, scrawled in lockers and written on the back of high school notebooks for decades. What is it supposed to be? What does it mean? Who knows. The meme started with soldiers deployed around the world before World War II and rippled out from there.
The best guess about the origin of the Kilroy image is that two already popular memes merged together in an unholy alliance -- the dude with the nose was probably a well-known British doodle called "Mr. Chad," and as for the caption, we can thank an American welding inspector from Quincy, Mass., named James J. Kilroy.
Via Jason Taellious
What a legacy.
Back in those days, it was up to men like Kilroy to inspect the rivets of whatever piece of metal their employers paid them to stare at all day. Most inspectors simply approved the work by marking it with a piece of chalk, but Kilroy decided to add some excitement to his dead-end job by signing "Kilroy was here." Apparently he was pretty goddamn prolific.
Here he is on the Berlin Wall.
Somehow, Kilroy's message combined with the already popular image of Mr. Chad became so popular that GIs began to scribble Kilroy's name and new identity onto everything they passed throughout the war: bunkers, bridges, walls, the Arc de Triomphe and likely Hitler's bathroom at Eagle's Nest. Once the war was won, an epic race broke out to stick Kilroy's name and face on whatever else existed anywhere, from the Statue of Liberty to the Berlin Wall to, no joke, the moon. At the height of the fad, it was common for pranksters to approach some landmark or another and whip out their markers, only to find that Kilroy had already been there.
Via Florian Kilzer
Needless to say, this was probably the last pop culture phenomenon to emerge from the profession of industrial riveting.
Decades before the Lord of the Rings films hit theaters but more than a decade after the books hit shelves, people suddenly saw this two-word phrase appearing everywhere:
By the same logic that fuels every meme or running joke (that is, almost no logic at all), the hero of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins, became something of an inexplicable cult hero during the 60s and 70s. Relatively obscure in their time, Tolkien's epic novels experienced a sudden explosion of popularity after the paperback re-release.
If you're wearing this pin, passers-by are obligated to take your lunch money.
Apparently, popular opinion among readers of the era was that Frodo was totally hardcore and a lucid metaphor for 60s hippies who felt held down by "The Man." Not only did Elrond, Gandalf and the other assholes effectively volunteer him into a suicide mission while they promptly skipped town, but along the way, Frodo got stabbed through the heart more times than we can count and even got stung by a spider the size of a Buick. Nevertheless, he kept on going. You know, just like hippies.
And thus, hippies and beatniks shouted with one voice the phrase that would chill the establishment: "Frodo Lives!" You'd see it on buttons, on bathroom walls ...
... on bumper stickers ...
... and on any surface where graffiti could be applied:
Via Jamison Wieser
Did the people wearing the buttons and buying the bumper stickers and tagging walls with the phrase all read the books? Shit, no. Like all memes, it reached a point where people just started repeating it. In fact, we're going to guess that there was a huge chunk of people spreading this viral message who didn't have any goddamned idea what a "Frodo" even was. Just as nobody remembers exactly why that one particular cat wanted a cheezburger. At some point, memes just exist for their own sake.