Tommy Lee Jones as a sheriff, holding a newspaper, offering side-eye to some target off-camera.

Gif-darmoks allow the insertion by reference of “reaction gifs” into spoken conversation, text-only correspondence, or other contexts that do not lend themselves to the direct and immediate display of internet-searchable images. They accomplish this with creativity and panache, unexpectedly injecting a bit of mythologically-tinted metaphor into the conversation, as they borrow their structure and purpose from the celebrated Star Trek episode whence they get their name.

To deploy a gif-darmok when the image of a well-known reaction gif overwhelms you, simply state a literal description of that gif using a carefully minimalist syntax reminiscent of that spoken by the aliens in “Darmok”. Looking at a list of quotes from that episode we see that the general template goes “[Person], [momentary attribute of that person]”. Sokath, his eyes uncovered, for example, or Zinda, his face black, his eyes red. But we see plenty of variation, too: the subject may be two people, or a river or mountain rather than a person. It might describe (in just a few words) the place where the person stands, and what they see.

Allow me to present three examples that I have used recently, along with a literal gloss of my intended meaning for each:

I see reaction gifs — and their kissing cousins, emoji — as a novel but richly meaningful, accessible, and legitimate way to express oneself through sharing pointers to common cultural references, and I cannot resist attempting to back-port them into spoken language through the mechanism that “Darmok” demonstrated a quarter-century ago. I also love the fun and challenge of creating and interpreting gif-darmoks, and the way that — by their nature — they elevate their subjects from anonymous dancing loops to named people within a single moment that bespeaks a larger epic, each one a proper-noun myth-hero bearing our culture forward.

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