The penguinocalypse

Circulating on Facebook (and many other sites) recently, this penguinocalypse cartoon:


I call this a cartoon because it’s a marriage of a quite specific text with a quite specific image, circulated as humor. In fact, I haven’t been able to find this text without this image, or this image without this text (right down to the illegible credit in the lower right-hand corner). Nor have I found any variants of this text, or any variants of this image. #1 is a unique artistic creation, just like the other cartoons I post about here — of the subtype in which the image is taken from some other source (in this case, it’s a photoshopped carnivore penguin) rather than drawn by the creator. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to discover who the creator was.

As it turns out, this is the third appearance of the cartoon, exactly as above, on this blog. Sadly, I am a forgetful person. Previously:

on 1/5/17, in “The carniguin”, with the note:

Side benefit: the -ocalypse word penguinocalypse. The usual libfix is –pocalypse; this version is shortened to improve on the somewhat awkward penguinpocalypse (with its /n – p/ sequence).

on 2/1/18, in “The penguins are coming, the penguins are coming”, with the note:

A bonus is the occurrence of the disaster libfix -(po)calypse in penguinocalypse.

The hybrid creature. The sharp-toothed photoshopped penguin in #1 is a composite of an actual open-mouthed penguin and some other open-mouthed creature with fearsome teeth. Given its tongue and the rest of its mouth, the fearsome creature is clearly not a reptile (in particular, not a snake), but a meat-eating mammal. Well, it might be a leopard seal — that would have some poetry going for it, since leopard seals famously prey on penguins (see my 10/15/19 posting “Sharing your penguin”) — or some kind of large cat, or perhaps a wild dog (for instance, a wolf). Models for comparison to seal and cat (thanks to Kim Darnell for finding these photos):

(#2) A Paul Nicklen photo from the blog posting “A National Geographic Photographer vs. a Leopard Seal”

(#3) From a story in the Daily Mail (UK), “Another tough day on the game reserve! Brilliant pictures capture the moment a lion wakes up from his afternoon nap”

The details of the dentition are clearly cat-like rather than seal-like. And in fact more cat-like than wolf-like. A snarling wolf:

(#4) From the HourlyWolves account on Twitter

(I note that it took me a very long time to find a wolf-mouth photo that didn’t come with a fee for use.)

A closer thing, but I still say cat.

Memes. As it happens, the term meme is a candidate in the competition today for the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Decade (at its meeting in New Orleans). The ADS definition:

meme: a shared cultural item in the form of a phrase, image, or video circulated online, often with humorous, creative alterations

The history of the term is complex — see the Wikipedia page — but there is often a pretty crisp distinction between a specific cultural item that circulates virally and a form or template that circulates in this way. This is the difference between a widely distributed quotation or other linguistic expression and a widely distributed snowclone based on such an expression: between Pink is the new black and the The New Y snowclone (X is the new Y, as exemplified in 60 is the new 40 and hundreds of others).

It is also the difference between a widely distributed specific cartoon — like #1 or the Carl Rose / E.B. White New Yorker cartoon with the caption including “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it” — and cartoon forms like Psychiatrist, Desert Island, Grim Reaper, etc. (many catalogued in my Page on comic conventions).

This is a useful distinction, and I’ve used meme to refer to the templates rather than to the specific cultural objects, but current popular usage uses meme for both. I particular, #1 is generally referred to as a meme. (I have no snappy term that picks out viral specific objects, however, so I’m just pointing out the distinction.)

There are, in fact, templates for humorous images related to the penguinocalypse cartoon. For example, there’s a genre of fearsome hybrid penguin images, like this DeviantArt penguin-whale by oringebob, a hybrid of penguin and orca / killer whale:


And a genre of fire-breathing penguin images (check the text in #1), like this one by TheUnseenNobody on Imgur:


(It comes with the ad built in, unfortunately.)

5 Responses to “The penguinocalypse”

  1. Michael Vnuk Says:

    As an Australian, I sort of recognise the information in the lower right corner, because similar things appear on government material here. To me, the logo is the Australian Government logo (shield flanked by kangaroo and emu, star above the shield, sprays of vegetation around it, etc) with ‘Australian Government’ next to it. Underneath, I think it says ‘Department of the Environment and’, but I can’t quite make out the last word, which may have been slightly truncated. It could be ‘Energy’, to give the current name of a department, or perhaps ‘Heritage’, an earlier department name. (Australian departments change names a lot, depending on how the prime minister allocates responsibilities to ministers.) Both departments have included the Australian Antarctic Division, and I think that this is the third line. The fourth line is a web address, perhaps ‘’ (for Australian Antarctic Division). Typing in that web address directs you to, the Australian Antarctic Division’s website, so perhaps the fourth line indicates the photo is older with an old web address. The fifth line is the copyright symbol and ‘Commonwealth of Australia’. I could be wrong about the second, third and fourth lines.

    Although it is not unreasonable that the original photo came from the Australian Antarctic Division, I doubt that the Division would have been responsible for adding the jaws.

    • Arnold Zwicky Says:

      Thank you. That looks like an excellent account of the source of the actual penguin image that was incorporated into the cartoon.

  2. Arnold Zwicky Says:

    From the ADS press release by Ben Zimmer about this year’s votes:

    The American Dialect Society voted for “(my) pronouns” as its Word of the Year (2019) and singular “they” as its Word of the Decade (2010-2019). “(My) pronouns” was recognized for its use as an introduction for sharing one’s set of personal pronouns (as in “pronouns: she/her”), while singular “they” was recognized for its growing use to refer to a known person whose gender identity is nonbinary. Singular “they” was previously selected by the ADS as the 2015 Word of the Year.

  3. J B Levin Says:

    I think the earliest use of the word “meme” I encountered was in Mike Godwin’s explanation of the origin of “Godwin’s Law”, for instance: (the following two paragraphs are from, a contemporary if not the earliest such explanation I saw):

    Not everyone saw the comparison to Nazis as a “meme” – most people on the Net, as elsewhere, had never heard of “memes” or “memetics.” But now that we’re living in an increasingly information-aware culture, it’s time for that to change. And it’s time for net.dwellers to make a conscious effort to control the kinds of memes they create or circulate.

    A “meme,” of course, is an idea that functions in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a “viral meme”) may leap from mind to mind, much as viruses leap from body to body.

  4. DOuglas2/ Says:

    I’ve found A source for the original photo, complete with logo at the bottom:

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