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Math symbols, a ring chart, and a megaphone hover over a smartphone in this image for a Meltwater social listening blog about top viral phrases of 2023.

From “girl dinner” to “the Roman Empire”: A look back at the viral phrases of 2023

Ann-Derrick Gaillot and Elena Tarasova

Dec 1, 2023

Online trends rise and fall faster than ever before, bringing with them changes in how we communicate meaning online. 2023 was one for the books, with tons of memes, challenges, prompts, and more bringing internet users around the world into various inside jokes. Some of the most viral phrases of the year included:

  • Girl dinner
  • Girl math and boy math
  • The Roman Empire
  • The ick
  • Nepo baby

Using our AI-powered social listening and analytics and media intelligence suite, we analyzed online and media mentions of these viral phrases from January 1 to November 27, 2023, to understand exactly how popular they became. Before we get into how they measure up to one another, let’s clarify our terms.

Table of Contents

What is “girl dinner”?

The term “girl dinner” refers to an unimpressive-looking meal made up of whatever you have around the kitchen. It was coined in May 2023 with a viral video in which someone shows off their dinner, a scattering of cheese, bread, grapes, and pickles from the jar, likening it to something medieval peasants might have eaten. The phrase and accompanying trend — showing off a snack plate dinner cobbled together from odds and ends from the fridge — quickly took off. 

How viral was “girl dinner” and why?

The appeal of “girl dinner” lies in the relatability of not feeling like cooking a big, cohesive meal for dinner every night. Users showing off the reality of their meals contrasted with the often curated, idealized displays of home life that fill our social media feeds.

Though “girl dinner” got its start in May, it didn’t take off until July as news outlets, like The New York Times, CBS, and The Guardian, caught on. 

A chart showing mentions of "girl dinner" over time peaking suddenly in mid-July and exponentially decreasing through November with 174,000 total mentions at an average of 524 per day.

This chart from Meltwater's social listening and analytics platform shows that mentions of "girl dinner" spiked suddenly in mid-July before decreasing gradually over the following months.

In a show of great timing, Popeye’s jumped on the trend just before its peak on July 21. The fast food chain temporarily added a “girl dinner” section of its online menu that included a selection of its sides like coleslaw, cajun fries, and red beans and rice. Popeyes customers, and then outlets, noticed and publicized the addition. 

What is “girl math” and “boy math”?

“Girl math”, and its offshoot “boy math”, generally refers to the nonsensical and contradictory mental calculations we make to justify our actions. It became popular after videos about the concept went viral online. According to some of the most engaged tweets about the phrase, examples of “girl math” include:

Overall, the phrase has mainly been used in the context of spending habits. On the other hand, examples of the “boy math” meme are darker. As CNN reported, “boy math” developed from criticisms of the “girl math” meme and is mainly used in relation to dating, relationships, and politics. 

Get more insights into today’s consumer behaviors and trends at our Consumer Insights Hub.

How viral was “girl math” and “boy math” and why?

Like “girl dinner”, “girl math” jokes and memes initially went viral for their relatable takes on the difficulties of budgeting and the power of impulse buys, but their virality was much more acute. 

A chart showing mentions of "girl math" and "boy math" spiking dramatically on September 26 before dropping off just as quickly, with 144,000 total mentions at an average of 435 per day.

This chart from Meltwater's social listening and analytics platform shows that mentions of "girl math" and "boy math" spiked suddenly on September 26 and dropped off quickly over the following two weeks.

The “girl math” and “boy math” conversation began in August, spiking dramatically on September 26, as blogs, like this one from Buzzfeed, and videos about the trend gained attention and engagement. 

A screenshot of AI-powered insights from Meltwater's social listening and analytics platform showing that mentions of "girl dinner" and "boy dinner" on Twitter were 376x higher than average on September 26, 2023.

Meltwater's AI-powered spike analysis feature found that overall mentions of "girl dinner" and "boy dinner" were 376x higher than average on September 26, 2023.

Our AI-powered spike analysis feature shows that Twitter mentions were up 581x that day, with this tweet from Netflix having the highest potential reach.

Learn more about how Meltwater uses AI to get you from data to insights faster.

What is “the Roman Empire”?

The Roman Empire trend, in which women record themselves asking the men in their lives how often they think about the ancient empire, was started by a Swedish influencer and took off online in September. The videos tend to show that men think about the Roman Empire more often than you would think. Now, the phrase “my Roman Empire” has become shorthand for something seemingly random that you think about every day.

Multiple major news outlets attempted to answer the obvious question of why the modern men in these videos and memes were thinking about the Roman Empire on a seemingly daily basis. Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other outlets boiled it down to the Roman Empire’s association with macho masculinity in popular culture. 

How viral was “the Roman Empire” and why?

“The Roman Empire” had a brief but forceful moment of virality in September that largely petered out by the end of October. By November, it was mainstream enough for Saturday Night Live to do a skit about it starring Jason Momoa. As our AI-powered content clusters show, that skit became one of the top talking points in the overall “Roman Empire” conversation.

These four content clusters summarize top stories in the global "thinking about the Roman Empire" conversation, including Jason Momoa's appearance on Saturday Night Live.

These AI-powered content clusters summarize four of the top stories in the "the Roman Empire" conversation, including Jason Momoa's SNL skit, Panera Bread's menu addition, and Francis Ford Coppola's commenting on the trend.

Like other phrases that went viral this year, this one largely had to do with assumptions about gender, but it also raised more questions than it answered. Both of those elements made it a perfect topic for online debate. 

A chart showing mentions of the "Roman Empire" trend over time, with 66,700 total mentions at an average of 201 per day.

This chart from Meltwater's social listening and analytics platform shows that mentions of "the Roman Empire" and its related trend peaked on September 15.

Panera joined the trend in late September with its “Roman Empire” menu. 

What is “the ick”?

“The ick” comes from the realm of dating and relationships. It describes something your partner, love interest, crush, etc. does to make you grossed out by them or lose interest in them. As Business Insider explained, it originated from a 1999 episode of the TV show Ally McBeal but became popular online in recent years. 

How viral was “the ick” and why?

“The ick” was a popular phrase throughout 2023, but saw a huge spike in mentions on June 30. 

This chart shows mentions of "the ick" over time with a significant spike on June 30, with 361,000 total mentions at an average of 1,090 per day.

This chart from Meltwater's social listening and analytics platform shows that mentions of "the ick" were relatively consistent throughout the year with a few modest spikes and one significant jump.

That day, mentions were particularly high on Reddit, as shown by our AI-powered spike analysis. The most-engaged Reddit post asking men what gives them the ick went on to inspire about 13,400 comments. 

This screenshot of an AI-powered spike analysis shows that mentions of "the ick" on June 30 were 27x higher than average overall and 80x higher than average on Reddit.

Dating is always a hot online conversation topic, so “the ick” was a perfect prompt for people to share about their preferences and horror stories.

Learn more about online conversations about cringy digital behaviors in our social listening analysis of “millennial cringe”. 

What is a “nepo baby”?

Short for “nepotism baby”, this phrase refers to people who get opportunities or achieve fame and success due to the influence of their famous, rich, or powerful parents. It was popularized back in 2022 but has remained relevant into 2023. 

How viral was “nepo baby” and why?

Mentions of “nepo baby” increased significantly this year and spiked multiple times.

This chart shows that mentions of "nepo baby" spiked dramatically throughout the year with 225,000 total mentions at an average of 680 per day.

The biggest spike occurred on February 27 after Jamie Lee Curtis said, “I know you all think I’m a ‘nepo baby’” during her Screen Actors Guild Award speech. The phrase’s biggest marketing moment came earlier that month in a Pepsi’s 2023 Super Bowl commercial teaser in which Steve Martin calls Ben Stiller a “nepo baby”.

Which phrase was the most viral in 2023?

Overall, “the ick” had the highest share of voice of the five phrases we analyzed, with about 361,000 mentions. “Nepo baby” had the second highest share of voice with about 225,000 mentions.

This bar graph shows the volume of mentions of each phrase with "the ick" having the highest mentions and share of voice at 361,000.

“Girl math” and “boy math” had the fourth-highest share of mentions, but they also had the most dramatic spike of mentions of all.

That peak of more than 17,600 mentions occurred on September 26, thanks, in part, to a viral BuzzFeed blog about the phrase published that day. 

“The ick”, “girl math” and “boy math”, and the Roman Empire meme followed similar trajectories of virality, seeing dramatic, one-day spikes that quickly died off. “Girl dinner” and “nepo baby” stand apart for having longer staying power. Mentions of “girl dinner” subsided gradually after initial spikes, and “nepo baby” saw multiple, relatively small, spikes over the year. At first glance, this may signal that those phrases were less popular, but that longevity helped solidify them in the mainstream. For example, in September 2023, added “nepo baby” to its lexicon, along with other new words like greenwashing, generative AI, chatbot, and GPT.

The takeaway for marketers

There was no shortage of viral phrases and memes in 2023, and the same will be true for 2024. With each one, waves of brands jump on the trend, but the ones that are successful nail the timing and integration with their identities. If you want to join a viral trend, make sure it makes sense for your brand and hasn’t passed its peak.

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