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Activation Phrase is a catchphrase used online most often to joke about bizarre sentences that usually feature niche internet slang. The term comes from the idea of a "trigger phrase," a concept in which a government spy organization will brainwash a person who, upon hearing the trigger phrase, will perform "programmed" actions that they will later have no memory of (also known as a sleeper agent).
The term "activation phrase" comes from the concept of sleeper agents, which are a trope of spy and thriller fiction. Typically, a spy or sleeper agent will act normally until they hear their activation phrase, causing them to begin acting on their government's orders. On July 2nd, 2009, TV Tropes created a page for "Manchurian Agent," named after the 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate about the concept. In The Manchurian Candidate, the communist sleeper cell, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, is a brainwashed sleeper cell and his "trigger" is seeing the queen of diamonds while playing solitaire.
Online, the trope is more commonly referred to as an "activation phrase," and is generally used by people joking that a bizarre string of words they'd come across online. For example, on October 27th, 2011, Twitter user @StevenMarsh joked that the phrase "The pancetta-gruyere muffins are simply unfair" was their "activation phrase" (shown below).
Over the following years, the term became increasingly popularized and was particularly used to respond to tweets that featured slang overload. For example, on December 19th, 2018, Twitter user bonerman_inc joked that their activation phrase was "Baby Dab Avatar PS4 $0.99," gaining 20 retweets and over 270 likes in over four years (shown below, left). On April 9th, 2023, Twitter user @BrndnStrssng joked that his activation phrase was “Taika Waititi’s Akira,” gaining over 180 retweets and 2,800 likes in one month (shown below, right).
The term has also inspired jokes on TikTok over the years. For example, on August 2nd, 2022, TikToker @thakisback posted a video of a man singing the names of SpongeBob characters with a caption about the CIA attempting to activate someone's activation phrase, gaining over 38,000 likes in nearly one year (shown below, left). On March 30th, 2022, user @corydamrow joked that they had activated their cat by using a popular TikTok sound that said "Kill John Lennon," gaining over 1.8 million likes in one year (shown below, right).
@thakisback #funny #meme #fyp #sleeperagent ♬ original sound – Josh Pastva
@codydamrow Why was she suddenly on a MISSION #fyp #foryou #catsoftiktok #sleeperagent ♬ kill john lennon. – 😴😴
@apileofkyle69 #sleeperagent #fyp #killjohnlennon #spies #gayspiderman ♬ kill john lennon. – 😴😴
@weirdo_1979 One of the greatest trollers out there. #fyp #orthodoxrabbibillclinton #gameawards2022 #sleeperagent #activate ♬ original sound – Weirdo_
 TV Tropes – Manchurian Agent
 Wikipedia – The Manchurian Candidate
 Twitter – StevenMarsh
 Twitter – bonerman_inc
 Twitter – BrndnStrssng
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