I was recently asked about the meaning of the phrase
Would you rather have unlimited bacon but no more video games or games, unlimited games, but no more games?
On first glance, this phrase may not seem to work (and it kind of doesn’t – more on that below), but it gets used around the internet and people understand it. So that means it does work. What gives?
What even is this phrase?
I was unfamiliar with the phrase before being asked about it. I figured it had already become copypasta*, or a piece of text that is copied and spread around the internet. In that case the question as a whole takes on a meaning (similar to the way idioms work). These are usually used as sarcastic replies in online forums (particularly in the ones where they originate, but also in online spaces which discuss similar topics). It’s kind of like having a recurring joke: the other people in the forum understand the question as a sarcastic reply meaning something like “the previous comment doesn’t make sense” or “I’m being intentionally sarcastic” or something similar. People in the community are familiar with the language of that community – the jargon, the slang, etc.
This is what happened with comments like “Has Anyone Really Been Far Even as Decided to Use Even Go Want to do Look More Like?” and “How is babby formed?”– which originated in an online forum and then became a copypasta. After phrases like these start to spread and communities become aware of them, they can be adapted and modified. So you may come across people reducing the phrase by writing or saying “games, unlimited games, but no more games” or “Would you rather have unlimited bacon”. Or you could see people write something like “Can I interest you in unlimited bacon?” in order to reference the sarcastic phrase which the community is familiar with. These kinds of textual internet memes are often from typos or misspellings that then get repeated by the community. The typo or misspelling is important and it’s what enables them to become a meme.
This is a natural process in language and speakers can modify phrases that they know their audience is familiar with. The phrases from online communities sometimes seem a bit strange, but people have been doing the same thing with Shakespeare quotes for decades (at least). Think about all the ways you have seen “To be or not to be” used in comedy or marketing or whatever. It’s just nowadays a typo or mistake in speaking is quickly and easily recorded, which makes it easy to remember and reference. And the internet never forgets.
The origin of “Would you rather have unlimited bacon but no more video games or games, unlimited games, but no more games?”
Edit Dec. 13, 2022: In comments below, James points out that this phrase comes from a listener question on a show called Respawn Inbox. The clip below was posted in March 2014, which means the original episode aired before that. So the phrase is older than I thought (not an uncommon occurrence in language studies). In the clip, the hosts read the question and then immediately poke fun at it for its nonsensical nature, most likely the result of a typo.
I have edited the paragraphs below to reflect this new info. I don’t know much about the show Respawn or the use of the phrase in between its appearance on that show and Chuckle Sandwich. But feel free to let me know in the comments!
[Original paragraphs, edited] This particular “Would you rather” question received a boost when it was used on June 21, 2021, in a podcast called Chuckle Sandwich. Without referencing the Respawn show (possibly because the hosts were aware of it – this is not something I would have picked up on), the host repeats the question to the other hosts.
The podcasters immediately pick up on the humor of what was said (and now I realize probably also pick up on its relevance in the online gaming community). And indeed the podcaster who said it on Chuckle Sandwich later on used it on twitter, which of course helps it spread
How does this phrase even work?
The question violates semantic principles, which is why it borks our brains a bit. The clause after “or” is contradictory. You think the question means one thing, and you’re following along fine, but then it contradicts itself.
“Would you rather” questions are supposed to present different options – “Would you rather X or Y?” / “Would you rather have A, B, or C?” But this one messes that formula up by presenting us with “Would you rather have A but B, or [the inverse of B] and B?” The first part of this question is fine. The second part, however, is impossible. You can’t have a thing and the absence of that thing at the same time. You can’t have unlimited games and no more games at the same time. You can’t actually eat your cake and have it too.
* I’m not really sure about the difference between copypasta and meme. I guess one difference could be that copypasta is text and memes usually have visual elements. But if anyone wants to point me to an explanation, I’d appreciate it!