Top 10 Pre-Internet Memes

A meme is an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture. The word 'Meme' was first coined by famous atheist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

"Memes (discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes and so on) are to culture what genes are to life. Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes."-Richard Dawkins

We're more familiar with Internet memes today, the ones we share on social media that quickly grow popular and then fade into obscurity within months or even a year. But did you know that there are actually some memes that existed before the Internet? Even before the word was coined? Hard to believe isn't it? Although it was more difficult for memes to "go viral" back then. That's why I've compiled a list of 10 of the most famous pre-Internet memes.

The Top Ten


At least there was no such thing as computers back then.
This was just just for protection, then turned into a magicians word.

Everyone knows this word. It's associated with magic tricks. But what does it really mean?

Well, the word has been repeated as a sort of running joke going all the way back to the Roman Empire! And yes, it originally was used as a real magic word by magicians back in the day.

"Abracadabra" is first attributed in print to Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, a second/third century Roman sage/white wizard who reported on its healing properties. The idea was that if you said "Abracadabra" multiple times in succession, dropping one letter each time, by the end you would be cured of whatever ailed you.

The etymology of this word is difficult to pin down, but a popular theory is that it began as the Aramaic "adva kedavra" which roughly translates to "create as I say."

The Sator Square

Probably the oldest meme in history.

The phrase "SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS" roughly translates to "The slower is at the plow," but nobody has cracked a better translation because we don't know what "arepo" means.

The phrase is a palindrome and can be read in any direction, including upside down and backward, so our best guess is that some Roman simply thought he was incredibly clever, and the rest of the ancient world thought it was cool enough to continue sharing with strangers for the next 2,000 years.

Very interesting list. - Metal_Treasure

Ancient Grafiti Memes

The original 4Chan. - PerfectImpulseX

Ancient monuments and buildings are covered in centuries-old grafitti. Over the years, ancient grafitti artists began to repeat the same phrases when chiseling. While most phrases were crude, one reads "Lucius wrote this."

These surviving batches of grafitti are humanity's earliest message boards.

Kilroy was Here

This one mainly depicts a cartoon face that would appear everywhere in its time. On walls, on lockers, on the back of high school notebooks, it was active for decades. Nobody knows what it meant, but it started when soldiers deployed around the world before WWII and spread out from there.

The best guess we can give about the origin of the meme is that two already popular memes merged together at the time. The dude with the nose was a well-known British doodle called Mr. Chad, and the caption was probably inspired by American welding Inspector James J. Kilroy (back in those days, men like Kilroy were 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 prolific!

This meme was everywhere. Bunkers, bridges, walls, the Arc de Triomphe and ...more

The Three Hares

Believe it or not, there are actually memes that predate the modern world. Ones that were active 1,500 years or so ago. One of them being The Three Hares.

This was a very popular image that was probably spawned during the Sui Dynasty in China. It's an image of three hares chasing one another in a circle with their ears attached in the kind of lame optical illusion that entertained people back then.

The image broke out in China and spread, where it eventually became a popular architectural feature in medieval Europe.

Eventually it ended up in Britain, where it became such a viral sensation that it started popping up on buildings everywhere. Fifteen centuries later, they're still sticking it into buildings!

But this isn't even the oldest example of a meme...

Alfred E. Neuman

You know him best as the mascot for Mad Magazine, but you'll be surprised to learn that the story of Alfred E. Neuman begins long before the magazine even started. The truth is that this character was originally used to make fun of the Irish! I'm not kidding!

Alfred actually descends from the hateful, apelike caricatures "Paddy" and "Bridget" that made life for millions of Irish in the 19th century even harder than it already was. All Mad was slap a different name onto an already successful stereotype. Heck, even the basic joke was the same.

Paddy and Bridget were part of an enormous and ridiculously hateful advertising sensation that swept the English-speaking world, appearing in prints, posters and greeting cards along with other cultural stereotypes as "thieving Spainiards as pirates, cheating Jews selling less for more, and savage Indians killing settlers." These were very hard, racist times.

At some point, the Irish caricature evolved into the more familiar ...more

Frodo Lives

This meme was active during the 60s and 70s, decades before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy hit theaters, and more than a decade after the books hit the shelves.

It was incredibly popular among hippies and beatniks, they used the phrase "Frodo Lives" as a metaphor for being held down by "The Man" just like how Frodo had to go through many dangers in the story.

The phrase appeared everywhere. On buttons, on bathroom walls, on bumper stickers, and on any surface where grafitti could be applied. Despite this, many highly doubt that the people using the phrase at the time even read the books or even knew who Frodo was.

Early Film Remixes

This list is very good! - Phillip873

Even when film was still a relatively young invention, one of the first things editors did with footage was to mess with it, and create nonsensical remixes. There's even an existing remix of Nazi Propaganda that was made to mock the authority of Hitler's regime.

These remixes were arguably memes. Unfortunately, back then there was no internet to post them to.

Have a Nice Day

Nice day is a YTP by cs188

Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose

Up all your noses with rubber hoses!

The Contenders

What's Up, Doc?
Take Off Eh!

This meme originated from an 80s skit on SCTV where Rick Moranis (who was satirizing Canadian lifestyles) said "take off eh! " The phrase means "to cut out." Soon everyone was repeating the phrase, taking a jab at Canadians.

Technically, the meme was "Take off, you Hoser, Eh".

Play It Again, Sam
Dave's Not Here, Man
It's not my job, man
This is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life
Andre the Giant Has a Posse

Andre the Giant was a French WWF wrestler who became famous for feuding with Hulk Hogan in the 80s. But what he's also famous for is the phrase Adre the Giant Has a Posse. Something that appeared on walls and sidewalks around the US in the 80s and 90s.

It started in 1989 where two students at the Rhode Island School of Design named Shepard Fairey and Ryan Lesser created the image while practicing stenciling techniques, and just started sticking it all over Rhode Island, presumably because the nightlife there was really lacking.

The Andre image eventually became popular among the skater community, and from there it went viral, appearing all throughout major cities of the US.

By 1994, the image had become so popular that it attracted the attention of some lawyers who pointed out that the name "Andre the Giant" was copyrighted. Andre's lawyers found out about this and tried to sue Fairey and Lesser with cease-and-desist orders. Fairey stopped using the sticker but ...more

54-40 or Fight
The S Symbol

A symbol with completely unkown origins and intended meaning, that existed since the 60's and became an international meme before the world wide web was born.

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