Quick, word association. Won't take a second, it's only one word. Ready?


What's the first thing that comes to mind?

I'd bet my Criterion Collection DVDs that it was one of the two following thoughts:

  1. Suicide. Mammalian mass suicide. Thousands of little furry critters flinging themselves off cliffs to drown in the raging waters below.
  2. Lemmings? LOL, I haven't wasted so much time since Tetris!

If #2 was the first thing that crossed your mind, you are truly a child of the Nintendo Age, like myself. But I'll bet #1 wasn't far behind.

If you have no idea what #2 means, congratulations, you're better off for it. But you probably won't be surprised to learn that it's directly related to #1. Lemmings is a highly addictive computer game that takes place in a two-dimensional landscape. When you start each level, a pack of anthropomorphic lemmings (with green hair, for some reason) are released. Essentially they do not know how to do anything except walk in a straight line until (a) they hit an obstacle and turn around or (b) they fall off something, or into something, and die. As a player, your task is to endow certain lemmings with key skills (stair-building, digging, flying, etc.) to enable the maximum number of lemmings to reach the safe goal on the opposite side of the landscape. It takes about ten minutes to learn the basics, and then your family and friends don't see you again for the next six months.

The point I'd like to make, however, is that the game is predicated on the notion of hapless suicide, so whether the word "lemmings" brings to mind the game or the actual rodents is moot; we're all on the same page. Because of their penchant for running headlong to their deaths (in effect, leaping before they look) and because they do it en masse (when one of them hears that mysterious call and heads for the edge, they all go for it,) lemmings have become the premier cultural metaphor for blind obedience. When considering "a herd of independent minds" such as political fence-sitters, conservative media, fashion victims, and teens who avidly defend one boy-band over another as if there is any significant difference between them, our society tends to describe them as "lemmings." It's a very convenient and colorful shorthand way to make a point, and it's exactly what our parents were getting at when they asked us, if all our friends jumped off the bridge, would we do it too?

Now, putting away the cultural rhetoric for a moment, I must admit that when I coined the name "Snickering Lemming" in a 1994 letter to a friend, it was out of pure nonsensical linguistic joy. I was smitten with the way those syllables roll off the tongue, and it had just the right Monty Pythonesque touch of whimsy to pique interest. Thus, perhaps in unconscious homage to Python's memorably ludicrous character names like Throatwarbler Mangrove, I impulsively declared myself CEO of Snickering Lemming, Incorporated, a subsidy of Flaccid Ocelot Enterprises. I was also tickled by the notion of such an improbable company name, one that could not be taken seriously, and how such a company might fare in the marketplace; but primarily I just liked the words.

When the time came a couple of years later to purchase an online domain, Snickering Lemming kept popping to the front of my thoughts, even though I'd only used it once or twice before. Putting the Ocelot aside, I thought Snickering Lemming would be an ideal name for a Web site, as it was unique and memorable enough to stand apart from the crowd online. Before I proceeded any further with this plan, however, I felt it best to do some heavy research on lemmings to make sure I wasn't implying anything I'd rather not imply. What I discovered shocked me.

Everything we think we know about lemmings is a lie.

The standard "scientific" theory put forth regarding lemming suicide is that when their herds grow too large, and overpopulation puts them in danger of starvation due to thinner food resources, some instinct in their subconscious brain tells them to thin their numbers by heading for the nearest cliff. As rationalizations for irrational behavior go, that's a fairly plausible theory, but unfortunately there is no actual scientific evidence to support it. In fact, there is no scientific evidence proving that lemmings commit mass suicide at all. (Certainly, some lemmings, somewhere, at some time, have been seen to fall off cliffs and/or drown; but the same can be said for any other land animal one cares to name.) In fact, the whole notion can be traced back to legend (Eskimo and Norse), and no one has ever seen lemmings jumping off a cliff...

unless they saw it in a Disney film.

The truth of the matter is that Uncle Walt, at his midcentury television and motion picture prime, often filmed nature documentaries to capitalize on the popularity of Wild Kingdom, National Geographic specials, and Disney's own True-Life Adventure movies. In at least one such case, the term "documentary" deserves quotes of uncertainty around it: 1948's White Wilderness.

Evidently Disney had heard the myth about lemming suicide, and sent principal photographer James R. Simon up to Alberta, Canada, to capture this amazing event on film. Simon had considerable difficulty locating any lemming suicides in progress — or any lemmings at all, for that matter, since they're not native to Alberta — so someone made the decision to work a little Disney Magic. We'd have to awaken Disney from his cryogenic slumber* to find out whose decision it was, but nonetheless the facts are thus:

A few dozen lemmings were bought from Inuit children in Manitoba and imported to the chosen location in Alberta. They were placed on a snow-covered turntable and filmed at an angle such that the few dozen, passing by the camera repeatedly, would appear to be thousands. They were then brought to the top of a cliff and herded or tossed over the edge into a river. A little judicious editing and post-production, and voilà — an American legend is born.

You may wish to verify I am not pulling your leg:

  1. Lemming suicide is fiction — Snopes.com, the Urban Legends Reference Site
  2. Disney's lemming snuff film — the gory details uncovered by a 1983 CBC investigation
  3. What is it that pushes lemmings over the edge? — 1995 article on Outside Online
  4. Lemming Database — part of an amusing site dedicated to Lemming Preservation

So. Disney cinematically fakes a mythical event, declares it a True-Life Adventure, and decades later, those of us who have never even seen the film are brought up believing this is how lemmings behave. That sealed my resolve. Snickering Lemming would be my Web site, and through it, the truth about these maligned and misunderstood creatures would be heard.

Or so I'd like to believe. Perhaps it's all a flimsy rationalization for a kooky name. Perhaps in my willingness to believe in the truth of the above links, I myself am part of a herd of Gen-X smart alecks, rushing headlong over the cliff of postmodern cynicism to drown in a sea of self-satisfied meta-media critique.

But hey, Web sites have been hung on much flimsier and less entertaining threads. So that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

*P.S. Walt Disney isn't cryogenically frozen either.
That's another myth.

(How did we ever survive without the Internet?)

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