Why Meme: Keep Calm and Carry On

Submitted by on the 8th of December 2014

“Keep Calm and Carry On” has popped up everywhere. From cards, to T-shirts and various memorabilia. But where does this popular meme stem from and what’s the significance of it for us today?

The origins of this poster are quite surprising. “Keep Calm and Carry On” was one out of three posters that were commissioned in 1939 by the temporary Ministry of Information in England during World War II. The other two posters, “Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might” and “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory”, were distributed, but Keep Calm was not released.

The sentiment, thoroughly British, was a steely resolve to remain unflustered. The posters were printed using a very specific typeface that would make it difficult for Germany to duplicate, and featured the crown of King George VI. “Keep Calm and Carry On” was placed on reserve and was meant to be used only during moments of absolute crisis but was never actually issued publicly. It was sadly lost to history until one of the originally printed 2.5 million posters turned up more than 50 years later in a box of used books at a secondhand bookstore called Barter Books (located in the Northeast town of Alnwick).

Today there are more than 10,000 varying items featuring the original phrase, along with its derivatives. Richard Dawkins initially defined the term “meme” as “culturally transmitted ideas”. Like all biological genes, cultural memes (ideas and cultural phenomena) have evolved. This evolution has experienced three levels: variation, replication and differential appropriateness – changed for different contexts. So this isn’t a new concept, but is now used to describe online cultural phenomena. Our generation’s need for satisfaction and advice has since evolved to maintain its relevance, moving from the “Keep Calm and Carry On” to “Keep Calm and Eat a Cupcake” and, even further, to “Stay Alive and Avoid Zombies”.

Having a conversation with our very own Keenan Harduth, aka @KeenyKeenz, he mentioned something that struck a chord with this exact sentiment:

“You will forget things, and at the time you will have that absolute moment of panic. Have your moment, let it pass, and default to the solution.”

The above quotation relates to our current generation, often bombarded and overwhelmed with the information we’re exposed to. Often this comes with its own negative side effects, such as panic and stress. These are the reasons that make the quote and meme “Keep Calm and Carry On” still relevant as it serves as a reminder that being overwhelmed is part and parcel of the benefits of the new age. No matter the state of the individual and the situation, our generation is aware, and perhaps needs the reminder, of the meme, which is why it has become so popular. It speaks to the particularly fast track lives of people in our society today.

I can’t accomplish much when I panic, even if I try my utmost best to. I have to accept that I’ve made a mistake, or that some things are out of my control, and default to the solution. This may sound simpler than it really is, particularly if you’re reading this and having one of “those days”, but trust me on this – “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

For anyone wanting to have a little fun, you can create your own “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster here.