In Greek mythology, the god Dionysus plays an essential role as the god of both the grape harvest and ritual madness. In Roman mythology, he is known as Bacchus, and is the namesake of the term “bacchanalia,” an orgiastic celebration of his godly remit. During bacchanalia, his female followers, the maenads, “whirled, screamed, became drunk and incited one another to greater and greater ecstasy,” according to Wikipedia.
The past is perhaps not as far from us as we might think. Grape madness has seized millions of social-media users, who, like the maenads of old, scream nonsense phrases into the digital void. Did you hear? They did surgery on a grape.
Perhaps you’re not getting the full picture, maybe this will clear it up:
“They did surgery on a grape.” It’s that simple. The line comes from a 2017 video created by the online video channel Cheddar. In the footage, surgeons demonstrate the precision of their new medical robot by performing the delicate task of peeling the skin off a grape. The line was written by producer Max Godnick.
But as is true of all memes, grape fever thrives outside of context. “They did surgery on a grape,” taken as a still screenshot and divorced from the original demonstration is just funny, certainly funny enough for the Instagram meme account @simpledorito to screenshot it and post it verbatim.
Since then, the phrase has stuck in the minds of users like food stuck in one’s teeth, and the concept has spun out from there.
Part of this has to do with the way in which professionally made digital video has morphed over the past couple of years. In addition to producing a livestreamed news show, Cheddar packages those bite-sized videos for social media. You know, the ones that have taken over your News Feed over the last couple of years — autoplaying, silent footage with short text snippets overlaid and stock music playing in the background. That format, with its limitations on space and its mandate to reach as broad an audience as possible, is what gets us from “Skilled surgeons demonstrated the precision of their new robot by peeling the skin off a grape” to “They did surgery on a grape.” Who is “they”? The answer is: Who cares? The sentence is both too vague and curiously exact. Why is it “they did surgery on a grape” instead of “surgeons operated on fruit”?
On top of all that, the use of “did surgery” is a specific type of internet-ese, in the same way that redditors talk about “doing science” instead of researching or Twitter users talk about “doing tweets” instead of tweeting. It’s a way of just slightly distancing oneself from whatever act they’re performing, to signal that the poster doesn’t take it too seriously either.
At the end of the day, though, what’s happening here isn’t complicated. Users have found a phrase that still hits the mysterious sweet spot of musical, mysterious, and vivid. It joins the likes of “Scrappy Doo found dead in Miami,” “Dobby pussy indulgence” (don’t ask), and going further back, the legendary “Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?” and the mythical “All your base are belong to us.”
It is an online colloquialism to refer to those who spend too much time steeped in internet humor and controversy as having brainworms. I guess that makes these sorts of phrases earworms for brainworms. Until the next earworm comes along, we’ll be thinking about grape surgery. Good luck thinking about anything else.