ask a millenial

Guest writer Julia Ireland explains the latest terms for people over 35.

If you caught that the title of this article is a reference to a 2015 Justin Bieber song, you probably don’t need to read the rest of this article. If you didn’t, you might be one of the many members of the millennial-preceding generations who make every effort to stay current — you watch popular television shows, you’ve dipped your toe into various social media, you follow diverse platforms for coverage of current events — and yet, you’re constantly asking “what does that mean?” The language spoken among today’s youth shifts rapidly, so here are three of the most commonly used terms defined to help you feel a little less lost.

A meme versus a GIF. A meme is a cultural symbol or social idea while a GIF is an image file that plays an animated sequence on repeat. “Meme” comes from the Greek word mimema, which means “something imitated.” The word was first introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, who described memes as a form of cultural propagation, a way for people to transmit social and cultural ideas to each other. Memes are typically captioned photos that intend to make a humorous comment on human behavior. The meme has become a social phenomenon and often “goes viral” across social media.

Here is an example of a meme:

Get it? An older woman who is less familiar with the Internet and social media is trying to figure out not only what a meme is but why she is featured in one. This is funny because it’s socially relatable: we all have an older person in our lives who is hilariously hopeless when it comes to technology.

A GIF is, conceptually speaking, simpler than a meme. GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format, which refers to the way that the single file is encoded with several images or frames allowing for animation. A GIF can be any moving image that replays itself, such as this penguin, just saying “hello!”


Woke. When used figuratively as an adjective, to be “woke” is to be socially aware and to remain alert to social injustice. To “stay woke” is to understand the dominant paradigms that have created social inequity and to actively educate ourselves around what might be our inherent blind spots. It’s important to note that the earliest citation for woke, used as an adjective, comes from a 1962 article by the African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley in The New York Times, entitled ‘If you’re woke, you dig it,’ so that non-black individuals can appreciate the full historical and cultural context of a term that is now widely borrowed from black American culture. The term likely became more widely associated with social awareness with the release of Erykah Badu’s song “Master Teacher,” in which she repeats “I stay woke” throughout. In 2014, “woke” began to be associated more specifically with the Black Lives Matter movement after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Social activists refer to themselves as “woke” and call on others to “stay woke.” In 2016, BET released a documentary entitled “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement” starring Jesse Williams. If you’ve gotten this far and are wondering if you’re woke, start there! It’s available on Amazon. However, be careful of referring to yourself as “woke” unless you are a social activist. The connotations are more significant than a light reference to social awareness.

A trigger warning. A trigger warning typically appears at the start of any content form, like an article or a video, to let the consumer of that content know that it contains potentially distressing material. A “trigger” is any type of stimulus that prompts the recall of trauma and brings on emotional distress. A trigger can be anything from a scent to a song to a graphic scene in a movie. When used seriously, a trigger warning can let someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) or who has suffered from severe emotional distress know that they might be “triggered” by whatever follows. The term is also used lightly or as a joke around content that may bring up bad feelings or uncomfortable memories for certain individuals, which has depreciated its meaning and caused many to think that a “trigger warning” simply refers to upsetting material. Trigger warnings are controversial, as some, including many college professors, argue that the avoidance of unpleasant and even upsetting material is not an adequate treatment for PTSD and that, actually, gradual and systematic exposure to traumatic memories allow for healing in the long-term. There is an ongoing debate over trigger warnings and their usefulness. If you’re interested, read ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ in The Atlantic or ‘If You Need a Trigger Warning, You Need PTSD Treatment’ in The New York Times .

If there are other terms you hear used that you don’t totally understand, submit them in the comments section and they will be defined in the next Ask A Millennial.