Lemmings? Lemmings!

I was in the middle of teaching my Freshman Composition class yesterday when it dawned on me that my students didn’t know what I was talking about. This kind of situation isn’t entirely unheard of in my class. I can go on for hours without making a point, or so my students tell me on a regular basis. But this time, I had a point, and I was making it clearly. At least, I thought I was making it clearly until I realized that my students didn’t know the meaning of a key term in the analogy I was drawing: lemming.

First, some background. My class revolves around issues relevant to popular culture. We analyze topics like education, work, and mass media. More often than not, we consider these issues in relation to social norms, and the questions we ask frequently have to do with why things are the way they are. In other words, we don’t just talk about what we consider normal. We also talk about why we consider certain things normal and whether there might be alternative ways of thinking about those issues.

As part of yesterday’s class, I asked my students whether there was any value in questioning our cultural norms and, if so, what that value might be. Among the answers was the suggestion that if we just go along with everything that our culture tells us to do, there’s no telling where we’ll end up.

“Right,” I said. “We don’t want to be lemmings.”

Blank stares.

“Lemmings,” I said. “You have heard of lemmings, right?”

“Lemons?” someone said.

Mings,” I said. “Lemmings.

Still nothing, so I asked for a show of hands to see who knew what a lemming was — and nobody did. So I told my students to whip out their smart phones and do some research. Here’s what they turned up:

The reason I mention all of this isn’t really to talk about lemmings. And it isn’t even to decry the state of education in the United States. I’m sure high school teachers have far more important things to do than make sure their students know that lemmings are best known for taking long swims that rarely work out as planned. Or that, as a result of their tendency to follow each other in droves to watery graves, they’ve come to represent mindless, self-destructive group-think.

My point — my larger point, anyway — is that words die if we don’t use them. When I was a child, I loved to castigate my friends for being lemmings. You really think Mr. Rogers cares about you? Fine, be a lemming if that’s what you want! Personally, I don’t think the guy even knows you exist. Yes, I was a very lonely four-year old, but I really knew how to hurl an insult. More to the point, I had a handy metaphor for the kind of person I didn’t want to be — i.e., a mindless follower.

So what does it mean that this particular metaphor is vanishing from our popular argot? For one thing, it means that we’ve lost a handy insult to level at people whenever they mindlessly go along with the crowd. Sure, there are others, but none have quite the same connotations as lemming. And an insult, it goes without saying, loses a bit of its punch when its intended victim remains blissfully unaware of having been insulted.

What’s more, we’re not just losing an insult. We’re losing a whole train of thought: To be a lemming is lame. I don’t want to be lame, so I won’t be a lemming. To put it another way, we’re losing a bulwark against conformity. Or, to put it yet another way, we’ve given rise to a generation of humans that’s far more susceptible to — well, to behaving like lemmings — than previous generations. By losing “lemming,” we’ve lost the ability to identify lemmings as such and, along with that, the ability to tell them to snap out of it.

Obviously, we need to get the word out. Or, more accurately, we need to bring the word back. We need to make lemming the insult it used to be, so here’s what I propose: After you’ve finished reading this post, click the “like” button. Then click the “reblog” button. And all of the “share” buttons. And after that, get on all of your social networking sites and talk about this post and how great of an insult lemming is. In short, do everything you can to drive as much traffic to this post as possible — and soon everyone will know why it isn’t good to be a…

Oh, wait.

Never mind.

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46 comments

  1. Ha! I have to admit to being in the same situation several times, and I never know whether to laugh or cry. I’m going to give “lemmings” a shot during lecture today… I’ll keep you posted!

  2. Marc … loved your lemmings tale … or is it lemming’s tail? … I would write more (aye wood right moor) now but I have this compelling urge to go down to Cape May Point and jump in the ocean …

  3. I have asked every person I have ran into since stepping foot into work and only 2 people have even known what a lemming is in the general sense. Such a travesty to loose great metaphors and insults.

  4. Hi there Marc. First of all I wanted to thank you for the “like” at the recently worded ramble on my space :)
    And I hopped over to your blog; and am awed. Just that.

    And so dropped, literally and figuratively, while browsing into the word pool here, on Lemmings. Charmed by it, and more importantly am waiting to call someone that. Perhaps a child in my class, and then let it lead to getting them to insult someone with that word, instead of all those stick in the mud dirty (therefore :D) words they use now. Class, that is what this word has got!

    I was thinking of sharing this, and here you give us permission to do that. Thank you. I have been educated with this visit.

    And… I did so love this piece!

  5. So I knew what a lemming was and I knew they followed each other mindlessly out to sea, but I forget why I know this. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with a cartoon I saw once as a child. Lemmings were running off the side of a cliff and someone was getting carried away and then grabs a branch from a tree and saves themselves from being taken out with the lemmings. I wonder what this cartoon was? I can see it pretty clearly in my head…

    1. Now that you mention it, I just remembered that I made a cartoon like that for an animation course I took in college. I wonder if the video tape is still around somewhere. I made it on your Super Nintendo system.

      1. There was a game called lemmings for the snes. They wore blue shirts and had green hair. Hope you can find the tape I’d like to see it. I think the branch could represent independent thought! Pulling you out of the lemmings way! Haha…

  6. I must ask my son if he knows of lemmings. And I have noticed that we have lost considerable use of words and concepts such as self-responsibility. But I must take exception about Mr. Rogers caring for children. He did, very much, as well as for adults. Read a few books about the man.

  7. Lemmings are cute. SAVE THE LEMMINGS! I enjoyed your post. Is this where this planet is heading? Overpopulation causes their migration, I guess that they get panic attacks and keep running plunging into their death. “I must get out of here, even to my demise. I’d rather die than live in this crowded part of town,” says the Lemming. And there they go, and there they die, all in search of new land, food … Stupid Lemmings, why didn’t they stay back there, amongst the “comforts” of home? Maybe they don’t die in vane. Maybe their purpose is to become nourishment for sea animals, the balance of nature. Ok, now I’m depressed. Oh, God I hope i don’t ever end up as a Lemming!

    I enjoy your blog so much; always giving us something to ponder.

  8. Ha! This makes me smile. You’ve described a teaching experience I know well! And your point about losing the words we don’t use is spot-on. I’ll have to link back to your post in a future post I’ve been planning on doing that is related to this topic.

  9. Brilliant! I can’t imagine my life without lemmings. It’s pretty important. There are so many words that fall out of favor and metaphors that disappear. :(

    Love how you ended the post. I had to re-tweet it. :P

  10. Very much enjoyed the post, as I adore lemmings when they are not living a metaphor. I didn’t know about the swimming…I’ve always equated lemmings as mass cliff jumpers. Brilliant use for your class. Anyhoo, roaming around and enjoying your blog. Cheers ~

  11. Mark,

    Thanks so much for your attention to my writing. Knowing that a writer of your talent visits my blog makes me feel like I might actually be doing something worthwhile. I think it would be great to take a class with you.

    I share your concern for the loss of meaningful words, for the inability of our new generations of students to use metaphor effectively, and even for the loss of enough skill to just to write competently. A few years back, I worked for a man who had an MBA, and he couldn’t write a competent paragraph. I’m not a Hemingway myself, but I can carry a sentence to completion most of the time.

    I’m enormously excited about the spring. I have tickets to see this year’s season at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. (Another one of those funny spellings no one knows anymore…Theatre) The plays being performed are “Twelfth Night,” and “Titus Andronicus.” In order to appreciate Shakespeare well, you have to know something about the world in which the author wrote his works. There are so many references to people we don’t hear about anymore, and to classical literature, and to terms no longer in the mainstream of English, that it can sound like gibberish if you don’t do some reading before you go.

    I will be enjoying it immensely, and will probably be writing about it in my blog, but I don’t want everybody to rush over there. I wouldn’t know what to do with a bunch of lemmings falling blindly into my blog spot. Take turns.

    Regards….John H.

    1. I’m a big fan of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre myself, and I’ve also enjoyed productions of his plays at the Arden Theatre in past years. One of the best I ever saw there was As You Like it. Perhaps our paths will cross someday.

  12. Not only would would I probably enjoy your course on mass media and questioning what we take for granted; but with this thought provoking article you have made me want to read off a screen again (something that I’ve grown to be increasingly lazy about).
    That is definitely an expression that I will use on a daily basis,
    South Korea(where I am at the moment) being the land of conformity.
    And I’ll probably just call my friends “lemmings” to piss them off :P

  13. It blows my mind that kids don’t know simple things like that, but then there are a lot more pieces of information floating about now than there were even when I was a kid, and that wasn’t all that long ago. I shouldn’t be that high and mighty, though. I learned about lemming habits from a PC game in the early 90s called Lemmings (still available on PlayStation, actually) in which the player had to keep a herd of lemmings from all leaping off of a cliff by building bridges.

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