January 30, 2004

The memetic phylogeny of "our new * overlords"

Michael Leuchtenburg emailed (much) more "I-for-one-welcome" lore, following up on this discussion. I, for one, wonder whether a simple mathematical model of memetic dissemination of strings (similar to the models of mutation and inheritance in computational biology) would enable a more systematic version of Michael's observation (that "[i]t seems obvious that 'for one ... overlords" is the original,while the others are variations. The number of hits decreases as the number of changes ... increases".

Here's Michael's note:

In addition to "I, for one, welcome our new * overlords", you might also consider the variations on this theme, listed below with google hits for *, * *, * * *, * * * *, and total. For convenience, the numbers for the root snowclone are also listed. I don't get the same numbers as you do, even using the link you provided, so I have listed the numbers I get.

I, for one, welcome our new * overlords (1880, 334, 213, 36; 2463)
I, for one, welcome our new * overlord ( 39, 13, 12, 2; 66)
I welcome our new * overlords ( 25, 40, 0, 0; 65)
I welcome our new * overlord ( 0, 0, 0, 0; 0)

I, for one, welcome our new * masters ( 152, 65, 36, 12; 265)
I welcome our new * masters ( 11, 0, 0, 0; 11)
I, for one, welcome our new * master ( 8, 0, 0, 0; 8)
I welcome our new * master ( 0, 0, 0, 0; 0)

It seems obvious that "for one ... overlords" is the original, while the others are variations. The number of hits decreases as the number of changes from "for one ... overlords" increases. At the same time it's evident that it's the meaning behind the words and not blind textual copying that is behind the pattern. This is evidenced by the much greater prevalence of "masters" over other words as the object of the sentence.

Looking a bit deeper, I can find other variations, such as this one:
"I, for one, welcome our new robot fundraisers"
"I, for one, welcome our new robot grad students"
"I, for one, welcome our new robot employees."

These are the only non-overlord/master hits in the first hundred on Google, and they all refer to robots. Interestingly, this page from the Jargon File says that the original value for X was "insect". That is certainly the correct quote, but I can't say with absolute certainty that this is the correct original source.

Hopefully you found this at least half as interesting as I did.

The patterns are neat in themselves, and suggest an interesting modeling exercise that might be the first example of genuinely scientific memetics (excuse my ignorance if I'm slighting some other work).

Linguistic data of this kind ought in principle to be richer in several dimensions than the available biological data , since we can have easier access to past-time patterns (via the wayback machine for example), and even to some independent evidence about the social networks involved. On the other hand, the networks along which the linguistic patterns spread may be harder to model, because there is no counterpart to the constraints imposed by geography and physiology.

This research direction might also count as the first-ever example of computational Bakhtinian analysis, since the uptake patterns of quotes from The Simpsons (and Buffy, and so on) might have been invented on purpose to illustrate "the interaction of different social values being registered in terms of reaccentuation of the speech of others".

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 30, 2004 05:22 AM