I have various private theories which strike me as true. That fire is the birth of consciousness. Or rather, when people first tamed it, gathered round it, spent evenings staring at this stuff that held their gaze, whose patterns shape-shifted their way into our ancestors’ cognition, that these pauses from forage and hunt – this down-time from th’anthropocene hustle, communing with flame, wondering as we blink through the reels of after-image – these intervals represent our first grappling with the awareness, as we think, that we’re thinking.
Maybe, round the fire, someone starting humming, or got up and mimed the throes of a just-speared aurochs. Smeared the juice of a berry on her finger, or banged a stick on a hollow piece of wood – instead of delousing a neighbour’s scalp, they tried a different sort of grooming. More conscious, social.
Another theory: an old lady stopping in the middle of the pavement and looking back is like an aged elephant hanging at the rear of the group, the matriarch saving the calves by presenting her wrinkled hind to the jackals testing the herd’s perimeter. So, next time, don’t get annoyed having to sidestep the old girl clamped to her Zimmer frame; when she stops and turns back, she’s just doing her evolutionary duty. In a word, autogerontopachydermicide.
Or my theory that the contagiousness of yawning is a response evolved to protect the group from all falling asleep at once. Yawning wakes you up. When someone yawns and you find yourself yawning in sympathy… well, you find yourself. A group of mammals helping each other to survive by triggering and thereby linking their sympathetic nervous systems. Unconscious grooming. I like to think of it as ‘Me Too’ in a good way. So someone from the circle yawns, another bestirs herself to stoke the fire, and the sabre-tooths slink away, unsated. Shared awareness keeps you from being food. Stops you being chewed, dude.
I don’t mean ‘grooming’ in the Weinsteinian or ISIS-recruitment-tactic sense. And I’m trying to use ‘Me Too’ in a different sense as well (although the memory of squirming off the school caretaker’s lap just as his gardening-rough fingers had got halfway down my hairless pubis does make me hopeful for the hashtag’s potential). I mean ‘grooming’ as a social, reciprocal, mutual phenomenon. Like you’d do with a horse.
My ‘Me Too’ is more of a pun on ‘meme’ (‘me me’ or ‘me two’) because the biggest personal theory I have is that I created a word. Or rather a meaning, that propagated outward and added a little to our propensity towards the dumb. If the human dance is an ocean, then I helped to introduce a nubbin of toxic, unbreakdownable plastic into its social swirl.
When I was 13, I delivered newspapers. I’d see the same headline 50 times, every morning between 7 and 8. Elvis is Dead when I was just starting. A couple of years after that, Brezhnev is Dead and later, Eric Morecambe is Dead. Now it would be Bowie, Lemmy, Mark E. Smith, Coco Schumann but, hey, that’s progress. As Kafka says, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Notice I said “says”?
The back pages, which I’d also see 50 times as I folded each newspaper, were given over to columns of adverts: back-pain relief, ventriloquy manuals, crystal healing, whoopee cushions, the Charles Atlas bodybuilding method (guaranteed to make your lady friend go wet at the knees), remedies for wedding-speech nerves, soothing tinctures for cyclists, guides to good writing. I replied to one of these small ads once: an offer of 250 stickers, 1½ cm by 3½, with (and this was the killer punch) your choice of wording. I ordered black lettering on a white background. Delivery within 28 days. Capital letters. 6-point Times New Roman, typeset by hand. And the phrase I chose? ‘Slap my buttocks with a red-hot poker’.
In that pre-graffiti age, these stickers became my tag. With a 13-year-old’s unassailable conviction that his every pronouncement was hilarious, I undertook to plaster Slap my buttocks with a red-hot poker all over. On buses, trains and lampposts, on school desks, ‘No Parking’ signs and across the foreheads of shop mannequins, on windows, bird-feeders and (my particular favourite) prams.
Of course, I soon had the school covered, helped by similarly annoying 13-year olds who thought the slogan’s hilarity self-evident. I even got another set printed, this time in white lettering on a gold background, which I gave out to some of my more enthusiastic distributors, as a way both of widening ‘meme-reach’ and of spreading the risk of any potential outing of me as the primum mobile of the enterprise.
I realised I’d achieved what the marketing department of Nike would nowadays call ‘cut-through’ when fellow students started saying, as an expression variously of surprise, disbelief or sheer pubescent frustration, “Well, slap me!” Other manifestations, like “You could’ve slapped me with a brick/stick/ feather/truck,” never caught on, presumably from semantic considerations or a certain forcedness about the prosody, but it was when my younger sister paradigm-shifted to a noun form – saying of one of my friends, “He’s a bit of a slapper,” – that full lexico-viral immanence was attained.
“Slapper” was an essentially meaningless epithet and could be applied to anyone in any context. Someone overdosing on Bacardi at a party could be “a right slapper”. Or a sanctimonious neighbour holding your football to ransom. “She’s not gonna give it back, the slapper.” A ferrety shop assistant or a pensioner fumbling in her purse ahead of you in the queue. The term’s vagueness and versatility gave it a short shelf-life when used within a circumscribed network – say, of suburban teenage idiots – but it was perhaps this very connotative slipperiness that gave “slapper” the legs to adapt to a wider usage, especially when this process was aided by the Proustian mental kick of people seeing it on stickers everyfuckinwhere.
I have no way of knowing the exact point where its meaning became fixed – referring to a female whose behaviour had been judged by her peers as morally questionable. Somewhere along the line, connotation became denotation, and the word was pressganged into that body of language which, while appearing to denote a certain kind of person, in fact showed the quality of mind of the person using the word rather than any supposed characteristics of the referent.
So, in terms of a theory that strikes me as true, I do feel in part responsible for at least a small supporting pillar in the temple of misogyny. A persistent little self-replicating virus, helping to contribute to a public space that would’ve been maybe a touch less crass and unreflective without it. Just another guy, getting in on the act, being the voice, sticking their [ahem] in. A meme that was really just me-me. Or metwo.