Word of the Month: Meme


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Reader Kim Park offers a word that has only been in use the past 42 years, meme.

Meme – noun ˈmēm

an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture. Memes (discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes and so on) are to culture what genes are to life. Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes. — Richard Dawkins an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media… the band encouraged fans to make memes to advertise the U.S. release of their EP … — William Gruger. The grumpy cat meme frowned its way onto the Internet in September 2012 and never turned its dissatisfied head back. Since then, the image of the cranky cat has grown more and more popular in direct proportion to appearing less and less impressed by fame. — Anastasia Thrift

Origin and Etymology of meme – alteration of mimeme, from mim- (as in mimesis) + -eme

First known use – 1976.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, the English evolutionary biologist, proposed this idea in his book, The Selfish Gene; “What if ideas were like organisms, where they could breed and mutate?” He proposed these ideas are actually the basis for human culture and are born in the brain.

Dawkins’s research is primarily in genetics. He has argued that all life relies on replication. But unlike cells, ideas do not rely on a chemical basis for survival. They begin in the brain and spread outward. Some ideas are more successful, which may be due to an element of truth they carry, while others slowly die out. Some may not be accurate, but society has accepted these ideas for so long that they are now just accepted.

Dawkins needed a name for this concept. He proposed calling it mimeme, from the Greek word meaning “that which is replicated.” He wrote in his book, “I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.” He felt the monosyllabic word would be more fitting because it sounds similar to “gene.” “If it is any consolation,” he continued, “it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’”

Proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition and inheritance. Memes spread through the behavior they generate in their hosts.

What interesting memes have you created, seen or experienced that you would enjoy sharing with our readers? Please submit any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected]