A particularly popular post in any community has the potential to completely reshape the language it uses. Take, for instance, in the cat community, the word “hamb”, used to refer to cats in general. The origin of this appears to be a posted image of a cat with a slice of ham on its back, with the caption “check out this hamb”. There is a surprisingly large number of images of cats with ham on them, but I’m reasonably certain this is the one in question:
This photo has led to the confusion of tens of thousands of people, but it seems to simply be that the greater cat community, still not largely familiar with the way this particular group plays with language, presumed that the poster was referring to the cat as “hamb”. Sure enough, it was followed by dozens, and now hundreds, perhaps thousands of other posts using the term as a replacement for “cat”, sometimes even going so far as to jokingly make “cat” itself taboo.
This is the story of that particular language game.
I refer to it as a language game because, although it exists almost wholly within the social media animal community (particularly the cat community), and is used in the context of the very unique set of terms, styles, and linguistic etiquette unique to that group, the specific aspect that led to the creation of the word “hamb” itself takes that base language and modifies it in a reliable fashion. As bizarre as it is, just like Pig Latin, there is a method to its madness.
For those unfamiliar, here’s what it looks like, from the source page of the original hamb:
While the language game is by no means used universally, “forbiddem” is a keyword that is almost never spelled ‘correctly’. Part of the linguistic culture in these groups is to use words with a semantic “heaviness” or otherwise more rarely-used words — such as, for instance, substituting the word “place” with “zone”, or “black” with “void”. As opposed to simply being illegal or not allowed, something is “forbidden”, and in this language game, nothing is more forbidden than the Forbiddem Glyph.
If you haven’t guessed yet, the Forbiddem Glyph is the letter N, which is replaced almost always with the letter M. Sometimes exceptions are made in the cases that this would form another different word and cause confusion, such as with the word “an”, which itself is frequently used with normally incorrect placement to the effect of humour within the language — ie, “ask an question”. Some groups, however, are extremely strict in the rule, even banning users for submitting a post containing “half-m”.
Unlike some well-known language games, the Forbiddem Glyph game, referred to as lemgthbook, does not cause difficulty to the uninitiated reader, and therein lies its reasoning: To get into the nitty-gritty of it, M replaces N for three discernible reasons:
- Scientifically speaking, the sounds for the letters M and N (phonologically written [m] and [n]) are extremely similar. In fact, when said in isolation, they’re almost impossible to tell apart, unless the listener can also see the lips of the speaker. Therefore, the difference between “forbidden” and “forbiddem”, phonologically speaking, is only noticed in the naturally extremely visually noticeable lip-pursing of the [m]. This is, of course, hilarious, in such a simple and primal way that we don’t even know why it is funny, it just is; and as human beings, we love it.
- [m] and [n] in English, as with most languages, have rules as to where they may go and where they may not. For example, I am a “linguist”, and only in this goofy cat world can I ever be a “limguist”, because [m] can never come immediately before [g] in English. Once again, most of us could not articulate these rules if asked, but subconsciously, deep in our wonderful pattern-finding brains, we know that not only is “limguist” not the correct spelling, it’s so incorrect that it’s literally impossible. This, too, is hilarious.
- Finally, <m> and <n> (the letters themselves) look very similar, meaning the eye can easily trace over an <m> and mistake it for an <n> at first glance, even though <n> is a rather common glyph, so the game gets to be played frequently enough within most sentences. We may sometimes even need to do a double-take before we realize that we have been comfused. Magnificently hilarious.
Some content creators will go even further with the biliabial lippiness and add the letter B in where it truly shouldn’t be, such as with the word “hamb” (from — you guessed it — “ham”). B immediately following M at the end of a word is always silent, so it doesn’t change how the word sounds, but it’s another wonderful complication of how it’s spelled. Interestingly, it doesn’t ever seem to happen when it’s an M that has replaced an N, but is only ever tacked onto word-final “natural” Ms.
B can even be used to replace D, in precisely the same way, and reasons, as N > M:
The lemgthbook game is frequently accompanied by other language quirks, often simplification, ie lack of capitals, “you” > “u”, parsing of consonant clusters (“react” > “reacc”), which are more common throughout social media at large. It’s therefore not counter-cultural, but instead, a rather inviting evolution of what might be seen as “standard” meme dialect.
And the word “lemgthbook” itself? As per the above reason, it is always spelled in lowercase, and it has its own little etymological path. It comes from “lemgth” + “book”, with “book” used as a suffix to refer to something concerning Facebook, the platform where the game originated. “lemgth” is the word “length” following the game’s rules, which itself is a general grammatically-shifted referent to “lomgbois”, being any animal whose anatomy appears stretched out (“lomg”) in some way. The game seems to have originated in a Facebook group specifically oriented around such images — hence, finally, “lemgthbook”.
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