Much like the universally true advice to “never tweet,” it’s probably a good idea to just avoid internet language and memes when you’re working in a professional capacity. Two well-intentioned researchers learned that the hard way recently when they didn’t do enough research on the term “derpy.”
In April of 2016, Angela Willey and Banu Subramaniam published a paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior that was titled, Fighting the Derpy Science of Sexuality. The paper was a response to a proposal by Sari M. van Anders, and the two researchers argued against the notion that science can provide biological evidence of differences between human groups:
The various sciences of ‘‘difference’’ – sex, gender, race, class, sexuality, nationality – where studies that claim evidence for biological differences between two groups often make the cover stories in scientific journals and popular magazines. In-group variation rarely leads to a re-consideration of a priori categories and studies with negative results do not get the same space, in journals or in the press… biological research marches on in its derpy ways.
The authors of the paper understood “derpy” to mean one thing, and they later found out that it has different uses that aren’t so great. Van Anders shot back with a piece that criticised the use of the word because it is an “ablist slur.” In their apology, the authors say:
The word “derpy” was introduced to us as a pop-cultural term that meant believing in something despite the fact that it has been disproven. A provocative notion, given that our aim was to suggest that while queer theory has effectively undone “sexuality” as a concept, empirical research (even thoughtful, feminist sexual science) persists as if the complexity of sexuality is ultimately map-able and as if the right set of variables will resolve the epistemological differences of critical theory and neuroscience once and for all.
As that long second sentence shows, academic papers are filled with dense language. The authors pulled a sort of “how do you do, fellow kids,” by throwing in some new slang. The problem with memes and language that starts on the internet is that it’s always changing. Pepe the Frog went from being a cartoon frog that was shapable for various meme purposes, to being one of the most recognisable symbols of the alt-right and white supremacy. Likewise, “derp” has changed meanings over time. The Oxford Living Dictionary defines it as a noun meaning “foolishness or stupidity.” But there are variations like “merpy derp” which Urban Dictionary defines as “a word used when a fucking idiot is speaking.” Other variations, like derp face, is defined on the website with offensive ablist language that associates a facial expression that “often involves eyes turned in different directions and a stupid smile” with people with disabilities.
This offensive meaning for derp has pretty much taken over the word’s usage and anyone who uses it without that intention runs the risk of being misunderstood. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic reinforced the association between derpy and language mocking people with disabilities when it controversially renamed a character previously called “Derpy” that was clumsy and had crossed eyes. Fan boys petitioned to “save Derpy,” failed, and the term officially became part of the war on “politically correct” language.
Another key mistake made by the researchers was to let New York Times columnist Paul Krugman define internet slang for them. The original paper quoted a column from Krugman in which he claimed:
“Derp” is a term borrowed from the cartoon “South Park” that has achieved wide currency among people I talk to, because it’s useful shorthand for an all-too-obvious feature of the modern intellectual landscape: people who keep saying the same thing no matter how much evidence accumulates that it’s completely wrong.
“As it turns out, the term ‘derpy’ has also been appropriated as an ablist slur,” the researchers write in their apology. “We regret our negligence in not figuring that out before the Commentary was published.” They also recognise the tragic irony of the use of a term that “is deeply implicated in ablist white supremacist legacies of the science of intelligence,” the very science that they were critiquing.