Ah, memes, the cultural currency of 2019. They make you laugh, think, roll your eyes, and generally keep you entertained throughout every day of your life. But what IS a meme, really? What does that word even mean, and where did it come from?
Apparently, the word “meme” was coined by the British scientist Richard Dawkins. He first used the word in the book The Selfish Gene in 1976. He defined it as “a unit of cultural transmission.”
In other words, memes are elements of culture that are passed from one individual to another through non-genetic means, especially imitation.
The scientist started out with the word “mimeme,” but decided to shorten it. He explained:
“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.’ The root of the word, meaning to mime or mimic helps get to the core of what a meme is.”
These days, when you picture a “meme,” you probably picture a funny photo, perhaps with text on it.
But according to the above definition, a “meme” could really be any cultural artifact that has been spread and passed down through imitation, including inventions that swept the world at one point — like the wheel or the spear. Cultural icons, like Jesus Christ, also count as memes.
The word “meme” has been used on the internet since shortly after the internet became widespread in the ‘90s. Its definition has since narrowed to “an inside joke on the internet,” but the word has a long, complex history that dates to well before grumpy cat (RIP) or Doge.
I wonder what Dawkins thinks of how we’ve memed the word meme?