by Helen Holmes
Like several great memes before it, this one began at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which has since its inception been ripe for rabid online ingestion via themes of humiliation, fear, and triumph of the adolescent spirit. It’s a live television event akin to the grammatical Hunger Games, wherein wee sprouts still small enough to crawl into the gears of a massive piece of industrial hardware in order to fix it from within are tasked with correctly spelling increasingly challenging words. You know the drill. We tune in for the joy and the sorrow and for the chance to witness the occasional mortifying cultural fissure.
A viral video from the more temperate seasons of YouTube (2008) comes to mind — an adorable blonde cherub of a boy from North Carolina is tasked with puzzling out “negus.” Clearly unfamiliar with the word, which indicates the sovereign of Ethiopia, and immediately chastened by what it rhymes with, we watch him struggle to do a backbend over a century-plus of internalized racial epithets before finally spelling it correctly. It’s of course extremely awkward, making for top of the line Internet chow.
Scripps owes its recent re-appearance within the plastic ball pit of viral content to a Vine whose subject is 5th place finalist Dev Jaiswal of Louisville (the Bee’s first winner, a patent lawyer born in 1913, was also from Louisville). Dev is 13 years old, bespectacled, and the owner of a truly tragic bowl haircut. Coming into the finals with a perfect score, he immediately wins over the crowd with his easy, goofy smile and unbridled enthusiasm for the game. When asked what word best describes him in a sidelines interview with USA Today, Dev replied: jovial. “I love having fun and just being myself and enjoying every moment that I can.”
So, just what exactly did Dev do? With a chance at eternal Bee glory at stake, Dev was charged with spelling the word “iridocyclitis.” In this one crucial moment all of his trademark giddiness vanishes. He clutches his oversized name card in his left hand, stares down the judges, and enunciates each syllable with the care of an apothecary casting a spell upon his bitter herbs: “EER-IH-DOH-CIH-CLY-TISSSS.” I believe that within the parameters of English verse and meter that Dev’s interpretation would count as Dactylic, but what seals the perfection of the moment is not his rhythm, but the slight hiss that he utters at the end of the word, as though milking a particularly stubborn tube of toothpaste. In longer videos found on YouTube we find out that Dev spells the word wrong, replacing the “y” with an “i.” Upon hearing the bell that signifies his mistake, he smiles grimly — someone in the audience can be heard keening out in actual pain.
Dev would never lose his composure like that. “Thank you so much, everyone,” he says sincerely, grinning as the audience collectively rises to give him a standing ovation. Dev for President.
On Vine, Dev’s utter and pervading sense of chill is mostly lost in favor of focusing on his legendary, practically letter-by-letter articulation of iridocyclitis. In the clip that originally blew up back in May, someone can be heard choking with laughter while filming their television, upon which sweet Dev can be found. That is pretty lame, in my opinion, but understandable. Dev’s perfect focus and concentration in that moment is on par with that of heart surgeons scrubbing in, or 17 year-old teenage boys about to call for pizza while stoned out of their minds. As is the custom on Vine, the clip was quickly and uproariously dubbed into hit pop songs of the moment, scenes from Spongebob, and other viral Vines. Once one spends enough time swimming in eternal loops, the patterns tend to become pretty familiar.
It’s a classic viral meme, but one that I find particularly noteworthy for its almost universal unwillingness to descend to the racist, sexist level of humor that stews in every app designed to hold digital media creations by teens. Dev’s head photoshopped onto the heads of dinosaurs as John Williams’ eternal theme plays in the background; Dev’s voice layered into the grinding bars of a Skrillex song; Dev’s perfect pronunciation swapped into Hermione’s famous “it’s Lev-i-OH-sa, not Lev-i-oh-SAH,” scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — it’s all delightfully tame, and, for the most part, not mean-spirited.
However, for me, the flawlessness of this Vine meme in particular is cinched in its wide distribution of “iridocyclitis” itself, a word so obscure and fun to say that it’s become pop culture canon in less than a few months. Teens are repeating and internalizing new hyper-specific medical jargon! We’re all out here learning new things, thanks to one heroic Louisville teen who refuses to indulge the haters (if he even has any).
“Iridocyclitis” refers to the inflammation of the iris and ciliary body within the eye; it’s often associated with joint swelling in the spine.
I Heard It Through The Great Vine is an occasional column about Great Vines.