Whilst busying myself in the kitchen the other day, I overheard the children next door playing. The youngest is about three or four years old and she was playing on the trampoline which is behind the shed. I couldn’t see her or who she played with, or how they played, but I could hear their play. The point to this preamble is that I heard her enacting being a baby to her friend and it was exactly the following in the enactment: ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga.’ This was exactly the same play-words that I’d heard Princess K. and Dino Boy using a short while back whilst in my garden and whilst they also enacted baby play. When I thought about it, I realised that pretty much all the children I’d ever heard in this sort of baby-play used this exact ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’ phrase.
Where does it come from? Real babies don’t go ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’: they gurgle and splutter and laugh, and strange alien word-formations start to come from their mouths, but I’ve never heard a real baby ever say ‘Goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’. Maybe I haven’t heard enough babies, but let’s just run with the assumption that real babies don’t go ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’. Someone, somewhere, must have started the whole ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ thing (or maybe, in the same way as evolution has a way of coming up with similar solutions to environmental challenges in different parts of the planet, ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ spontaneously arrived independently of other similar utterings elsewhere).
It’s the same with ‘being teacher’ role play: whenever I see children engaged in the socio-dramatic art-form that is the recreation of their teacher, or a teacher, I’m fairly confident in saying that it’s going to involve chairs, desks, usually some sort of a board, a register on a clipboard and, importantly, a fair amount of finger wagging. I’ve never seen a teacher wag their finger at a child or a group of children, I don’t think. I’ve seen some stood up, arms crossed, with stern looks on their faces, and I’ve seen some doing the whole ‘Errrrm’ thing at a pitch high enough and at a volume great enough to wake the dead and to reach into the far recesses of the playground, but I’ve never seen the finger wagging thing. Where do children get this from?
When I started thinking of the origins of such actions and phrases as finger wagging and ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’, I made a quick loop round the idea of ‘memes’. I tried to find a workable definition, and the one that follows is cobbled together from various places such as Oxford Dictionaries, Urban Dictionary and Mirriam-Webster Dictionary:
An element of a culture; an idea, belief, or pattern of behaviour that spreads throughout a culture from one individual to another, by imitation for example, either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)
A pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; especially contagious to children and the impressionable.
These play memes that are ‘being baby by using goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga’, or ‘being teacher by finger wagging’ seem to be culturally transmitted between children. This transmission process keeps those memes alive. The more they get transmitted, the stronger they become, i.e. the more embedded they become in the play reportoire of a mass of children. The individual elements of this mass of children don’t have to know one another: children in the north and children in the south engage in the memes, for example. Such is the strength of such play memes that children can essentially speak the language of play to a complete stranger-child and still not have to engage in the language that their family uses, as it were. Many times I’ve seen children from various countries capably comprehend one another in their play.
So, the strong memes survive and, just like natural selection, the weaker memes die out. Children engaged in ‘Mummies and Daddies’ play, or ‘being at the vets’, or ‘being the doctor’, or such like, still tend to spend more time narrating what’s about to happen rather than immersing in the ‘what’s about to happen’ actually happening. This narration meme is strong still, whereas what’s happened to the old ‘locking together of fingers, index fingers up in a point, open the gate of the thumbs, turn the hands upside down, and wiggle the other fingers to show all the people in the church’? I don’t know why we used to do this when we were younger, but we did, and it was almost like a form of currency, one child to the other. Yesterday I saw a child do the old ‘High-five up above, on the side, down below . . . you’re too slow’ thing to a colleague, and I’m glad that meme is still hanging in there!
The question is though, and it’s one I can’t answer, so I’m just typing it out to throw it out there: where did such memes start? Or rather, how did they start? Of course, we’ll never know because as far as we know nobody’s fully documented the infinite depths of children’s culture. It is, also, another way of opening the door again here on the thinking on magic and legend and play and the depth level of our culture, of which children are such a part, but which they aren’t always fully credited for.
The play memes of children transmit themselves through the cultural whole but we can go about our adult lives ignorant of the nuances that surround us: the replication of ‘goo-goo, ga-ga; goo-goo, ga-ga’ (both in terms of how different children use the same phrase and, in my experience, that ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ is itself often a double ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’); the interpretation of the actual or archetypal teacher in all its finger-wagging satire and caricaturising; the essential narration before/as some play (like indoor/outside space: is it?/isn’t it?); church steeples as known actions; high-five configurations as means of joking, relating, power-shifting, perhaps.
We can trace the memes back, maybe, but they’re of folklore so can we even find their beginnings? So, I ask the question rather more in rhetorical manner: where did that ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’ thing come from?