The History of Meme

The English language is fascinating, especially regarding the way new words are formed and how meanings evolve.

Take “meme.” According to Merriam-Webster, the current meaning is “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) that is spread widely online especially through social media.”

But the word itself isn’t new. It actually goes back to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins uses it as “a unit of cultural transmission.” In Dawkins’ words —

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’.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms 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.

However, the word didn’t appear in a dictionary until 1998, when the Tenth Edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary was updated. Dawkins’ meme was defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” So it took over 20 years before meme’s use was widespread enough to be an established term. 

The next step was for the meaning to become associated with the Internet. That first use was apparently in a 1998 CNN interview —

GREG LEFERVE, CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Who is this tyke, slashing his air guitar, dancing the boogaloo (ph) and haunting “Ally McBeal?” He’s a figment of Michael Girard’s imagination.

MICHAEL GIRARD, UNREAL PICTURES: The dancing baby actually goes actually goes back to an initial cha-cha motion that I created as a demo file years ago.

LEFERVE: Girard created the baby to show off his animation software. It worked. Now, zillions of the copies of the diapered dancer animate computer screens across the Internet.

JANELLE BROWN, WIRED NEWS: And the next thing you know, his friends have forwarded it on and it’s become a net meme.

LEFERVE: Net meme—the Wired Style guide calls a meme a “contagious idea.”

This meaning gradually came into use until in 2015 it was defined by Merriam-Webster as given at the beginning of this piece — “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.”

But this being English, we’re not done yet. Lately it’s being used as a verb, and is being combined with other words, like “meme-tastic.” There doesn’t appear to be a limit, just like the Internet itself.

When will it end? Never!

For all the details, see “The History of Meme” at https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/meme-word-origins-history? .

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