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Definition of “Meme”

My post on the 100 Books meme on Facebook has a long discussion in the comments section on what constitutes a “meme.” I say that a meme requires some sort of participation on the receivers’ part, much like the 100 Books meme requires users to highlight the books they’ve read out of the 100. Readers commented that meme requires no participation at all, nor is it my mini-definition (for the purposes of that post) of a “little chain-letter like game that spreads around the Internet.”

The arguments got a bit heated. I’ll explain my position, which seems ungrounded to my readers, in a minute.

First, I’d like to quote Paul Wood, an Assistant Editor at Merriam-Webster.com. Here is his response to my email asking if he could confirm if Richard Dawkins coined the term, and if he could fill the history and etymology on the word “meme:”

The evidence does seem to suggest that Richard Dawkins did, in fact, coin meme. He introduces this word in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), and describes his choice of this word as follows:

“We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, 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.’ “(p. 192)

For Dawkins, a meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (192). Any idea or cultural expression which can spread from person to person within a culture would be an example of a meme (an English-page Google Books search for works between, say, 1976 and 2000, should turn up plenty of examples of memes in discussion outside of specifically Internet-related contexts). Many contemporary discussions of memes focus on the Internet because it appears to have become the most viable means of meme transmission (one can only wonder if, when Dawkins came up with the idea of memes, he could have predicted lolcats and double rainbow viral videos).

The Greek mimeme (μίμημα) means “that which is imitated,” and it comes from mimeisthai (μιμεϊσθαι), “to imitate.”

Paul Wood
Assistant Editor
Merriam-Webster, Inc.
47 Federal Street, PO Box 281
Springfield, MA 01102 http://www.Merriam-Webster.com http://www.WordCentral.com

I never disputed the Richard Dawkins origin. What I disputed was the definition of meme of “any cultural thing that spreads.” My issue is with the “spread.” Whether passive or active (and in the case of Internet memes, it is mostly active), participation is required for “spread.” In other words, it is not a meme if you don’t catch it (or watch/read it) or you don’t pass it (or send it) on to others. In the case of the Internet, most of the memes I write about are written media, hence my “chain-letter like” phrase.

Since I blog in the explanatory journalism arena, I not only look at the pure definition of neologisms like “meme,” but also the common user’s working knowledge of the word. Most end-user Facebook members will recognize “meme” as something that gets sent to you, you watch or read it, then you forward it to friends. The quickest way to explain this to a mostly older audience (the Generation X and above demographics, the target group I write for), “chain-letter” will communicate the concept most quickly and efficiently. It isn’t perfect, but in that case it works.

My approach to language is definitely descriptivist, as opposed to prescriptivist. I believe that language grows and changes. Although we must respect and work within a basic, general framework, to declare that there is one “correct” or “proper” English is to show a lack of understanding of the eons of scholarship surrounding languages. Yes, one should learn the most accepted forms of grammar, and learn how culturally language use is connected to socio-economic class structures. But after we are past our elementary stages, as adults we can understand each other well enough and should be tolerant to and learn to embrace language differences.

I’ll admit, as a writer of not only journalism but of fiction and poetry, I enjoy pushing the expected boundaries of words. But when I am writing for this blog or for media outlets, I go for the most efficient ways to explain concepts. I’m not penning a dictionary here, I’m explaining a complicated Internet phenomenon. I’ll use, bend, manipulate, create words that do that in the fewest words possible.

You prescriptivists can have it out in the comments.

Thanks to Paul Wood at Merriam-Webster.com. (My subscription to the unabridged dictionary at m-w.com is my most important online resource. If you are a writer or just someone who loves words and language history, then check out their service.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ben King 25 February 2011, 12:03 pm

    Meme was never intended to denote participation in the way you describe. I think the problem people had with your definition was that itessentially trivialises to the very extreme what is in fact one half of what makes us human.

    Memetics represents the second great evolutionary force that has emerged from life. It is eveything that sets us apart from animals, what gives us cumulative knowledge and what creates History. To summarise this as a little chain letter type of thing is possibly the biggest understatement I have read all year.

    What matters is the spread from mind to mind, not computer to computer. Thus merely reading something that another mind has produced, without any further participation from the reciever IS memetic spread.

    Have a look, if you care to (it’s a bit long) at my thesis on cultural evolution and its role in identity, morality and emergent properties of complex societal systems. Perhaps then you can appreciate why ‘little chain letter’ is simply wrong.


    • PurpleCar 26 February 2011, 7:30 am

      OK, you realize 1. That words have multiple definitions. 2. I write for an
      end-user audience, right?

      Also, you have not proposed any other substitute word. I’m all for neologisms.
      Give it a try.

      -Christine Cavalier

      • Ge Bilie 1 March 2011, 9:34 am

        Your continued defense of your position is frustrating.

        Let’s imagine a universe in which the words “coupe” and “convertible” do not exist and are not paired with each other.

        Suppose I say that, “An automobile is a roofless vehicle with four wheels and two doors.” and then you counter, “that’s not true, an automobile can have a roof or four doors or both.” You then expound upon the invention of the internal combustion engine, Henry Ford’s assembly line and the Model T, and work your way up to modern-day hybrids to show me that there do exist roofed automobiles with four doors as counterexamples to my argument.

        First, I think it’s evident that the rightness of your argument in no way hinges on your ability to use the phrase “coupe convertible” to describe my roofless two-doored vehicle. The burden does not fall on us to provide you with a suitable word.

        Perhaps, if you’d spend less time defending erroneous statements with specious arguments, you’d have thought of a clever neologism yourself.

        Second, it is pedantic and condescending to point out that words have multiple definitions to your critics. You are giving yourself far too much credit by asserting that you have deliberately come up with a radically new definition of the word; you’ve merely bastardized “meme” by mistakenly, and now obstinately, limiting its scope. Instead of treating your end-user audience like a bunch of silly children and telling them easier-to-understand lies about storks delivering babies, why couldn’t you have just done a modicum of research and said something like this:

        “The term “meme” was coined by acclaimed zoologist Richard Dawkins to represent a unit of culture analogous to the physical gene and which spreads according to the same principles. Though it takes thousands of years for a given gene to spread throughout a population, the advent of the Internet enables a meme to spread amongst us humans in a matter of months – maybe even faster now with Facebook! A popular example of a meme is Facebook’s latest “25 things” list, which you’ve probably already seen in your inbox a few times.”

        There, you don’t even need a new word! Nobody is misinformed and everyone learns a bit more about this mysterious word they keep seeing pop up here and there.