It’s a trope as old as noir itself, one that’s expected in any action film where a weary, downtrodden, one-time hero is called upon to once again save the world. Our fresh-faced new characters go looking for some still-living legend, only to find him—and it’s almost always a him—at the wrong end of a whiskey bottle, sucking on a cheap cigarette. They approach with great reverence and hesitation, addressing him by a title he’s all but forgotten.
From amid the smoke and shadow comes some movement. Our man stubs out his cigarette and lights a new one, offering the gruff, ambiguous reply:
“I haven’t heard that name in years.”
Sure, the line takes many different forms—”He’s long gone,” or “You came all this way for nothing,” or “I don’t know who you’re talking about”—but it’s always recognizable. And our grizzled vet knows what’s coming next.
What makes for a good cliché, of course, also makes for a great meme: formula. Which is how we got to this Thomas the Tank Engine joke.
*puffs on a cigarette* "Thomas? I haven't heard that name in years"pic.twitter.com/jBe9KrxyDf— Jeffrey Simpson (@FadAstra) January 16, 2016
And the countless variations that followed, most of which trade on the long absence of whoever or whatever you were seeking in the first place.
Like Microsoft’s Clippy, for example.
Microsoft Word? Haven't heard that name in years. pic.twitter.com/plXVeseEkt— RamsTeeBallFan95 (@JoeyLozito) July 29, 2016
Or a certain pop star known for spelling out the name of a fruit.
Or crime-fighting reptiles.
teenage mutant ninja turtles? i haven't heard that name in years pic.twitter.com/osD6Lpk9L1— julia (@JuliaTesmond) August 10, 2016
Or a forgetful fish.
Dory? I haven't heard that name in years pic.twitter.com/IRjC2nlbRQ— Todd 'Papi' Carlos (@TheToddWilliams) August 8, 2016
And so on.
Pillsbury? haven't heard that name in years... pic.twitter.com/owNq7c54JG— Andrew Shepherd (@ASHEPferg) August 5, 2016
But here’s where it gets interesting. The “haven’t heard that name in years” meme, in its retrospection, is the perfect vehicle for reviving other memes that—in the usual way of the lightning-paced web—are quickly discarded and become vague historical footnotes amid so much digital debris.
Dat Boi, for example, peaked just a few months ago, but it already feels as if years have passed since the zenith of his stardom. Therefore, you get this:
dat boi? I haven't heard that name in years... pic.twitter.com/tYIDZeSlfD— Lazy dog (@LaziestCanine) June 21, 2016
Ditto the dead ape Harambe, whose (faked?) death feels a lifetime ago.
And SpongeBob SquarePants and his boss, Mr. Krabs, whose memehood is now largely archival.
"Mr. Krabs? I haven't heard that name in years " pic.twitter.com/x36uVF1R1D— kayla (@kaylamilcetic) August 16, 2016
And their fellow memeable cartoon character, Arthur.
Arthur... I haven't heard that name in years pic.twitter.com/UZu5UHXBQR— woke's cold (@taxesndeath) July 29, 2016
Then there’s the living, swimming meme known as Michael Phelps.
Michael Phelps? Haven't heard that name in years pic.twitter.com/J37NEUlDbi— kelsey courville (@kncourville) August 13, 2016
As well as Pepe the Frog, ancient by meme standards.
Pepe the frog? I haven't heard that name in years pic.twitter.com/C1b5soWTYV— connor (@Connorizakittay) August 10, 2016
And, of course, Bee Movie.
Jerry Seinfeld? haven't heard that name in years.... pic.twitter.com/KwGkA3hooo— Latina Fey (@yung_nihilist) August 1, 2016
Naturally, the format isn’t limited to other memes, and it works with just about everyone (and everything), so long as a cigarette is involved.
Betty Crocker? Haven't heard that name in years. pic.twitter.com/dSgmuC3kTf— joey🐝 (@rougaschmougas) August 15, 2016
"Alice? I haven't heard that name in years" pic.twitter.com/Uqutq9eAU8— gjorge (@tellin_me) August 16, 2016
Jack O'Lantern? Haven't heard that name in years pic.twitter.com/BhQNXsOns2— Bernie Bro™ Flamez☭ (@etrnl_oblvn) August 16, 2016
Aflac? Haven't heard that name in years. pic.twitter.com/zHlT9p5dQL— LAMAR JACKSON MVP!!! (@OhRoyyy_) August 16, 2016
The most closely related forerunner of this meme might be “feel old yet?” or “want to feel old?” template—in which a semi-forgotten celebrity, child actor, or fictional character is revealed to have aged ridiculously, thereby putting into perspective the rapid passage of one’s own life.
want to feel old? this is what cyclops looks like now pic.twitter.com/Z5Hg8ETYac— the supreme court will destroy everything we want (@SeanMcElwee) August 15, 2016
It’s fascinating to see the ways in which these jokes attempt to resolve a cognitive dissonance about how quickly time flows when you’re surfin’ the ‘net. Things get old fast, memes perhaps most of all, but especially even the basic infrastructure that allows ideas to spread and content to go viral. Before you know it, the very network you’re on right now will be sipping cheap gin in a greasy dive bar. It’ll hear someone come through the creaking front door, order a beer, and ask, “Information Superhighway?”
“I haven’t heard that name in years,” the internet will say.