Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Deconstruction of a meme: If it seems to be self-evident, chances are it probably isn't

Like a lot of the internet memes (this one dates back to 2003) that spread like wildfire and mostly disappear without a trace, except perhaps in folk memory and as entries on urban legend websites, this seems to make perfect sense when you think about it. Sure -- keep the first and last letters the same, scramble the ones in between, and it's still readable. It seems obvious. But what about this scrambled sentence?
The sprehas had ponits and patles
Among the possible interpretations, in order of obscurity:
The sherpas had pitons and plates.
The shapers had points and pleats.
The seraphs had pintos and petals.
The sphaers had pinots and palets.
The sphears had potins and peltas.
This is part of a fascinating deconstruction of the truths, half-truths and untruths scrambled together in the scrambled-word meme by Matt Davis, a neuroscientist who really did work in Cambridge when he wrote it -- unlike the probably apocryphal "rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy," who has never been identified.

Davis traces the spread of the meme around the world in a number of languages -- in some of which it is transformed into nonsense by the very structure of the written language, and in some of which it makes about as much sense as in the original. It's a great read, especially as Davis covers a lot of current research circa 2003 about the neuroscience of reading in the process of analyzing the meme. (If you want to scramble some web text yourself, you might want to check out this website for its scrambled-word generator, for which you just type in a URL.)

Knid of mkeas you wednor aobut oehtr mmees we cmoe asocrs on the itnenret.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

we were first made aware of this phenomenon when we read a plaque on the wall of a jimmy johns submarine sandwich shop in south bend indiana as we waited to utilize the mens' latrine that spelled this out.