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.”
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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.)