Etymology

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We have a very exciting, informative post today. I’m going to tell you what a “meme” is. You may say “Oh Cat, we already know what a meme is. The internet told us so, you stupid man!”, to which I would respond with a quick slap across your face.

Let’s get that out of the way. “Meme” is a word that has slipped into the lexicon of the internet community, much like “fail” and “win” did (to a much greater degree). A “meme” is any kind of video, joke, phrase, picture, etc. that is repeatedly shown over and over for great enjoyment. Think of the Numa Numa guy or the “Can I haz cheezeburger” Cat (a joke that went waaaay too far).

If this isn't in the public domain by now, I will eat my hat.

Now let’s talk about what a “meme” really is. Richard Dawkins wrote a book called The Selfish Gene in 1976, back when he was doing actual science instead of burning down churches (Figuratively… I think). The idea of the “selfish gene” is that a particular gene will do whatever it can to replicate itself as much as possible, regardless of the consequences for the creature it is in or the ecosystem as a whole. A virus is a good parallel for this, it replicates endlessly without regard to what it harms.

Dawkins was trying to find a way to describe the transfer of information from parent to child as well. In his efforts, he coined the term “meme”.

You might notice that “meme” and “gene” are spelled similarly. If you do, give yourself a cookie because that’s the reason for the term. A meme acts as a gene, but replacing the genetic code with social ideas such as mores or techniques. Just like passing the gene for blonde hair down to his son, a father would also pass down a meme about religion, social heirarchy, techniques for farming, whatever. This idea uses evolutionary theory to explain the spread of certain kinds of ideas, including religion and the like.

The observant among you may notice that the actual definition of a meme and the internet’s version are quite different. Hint: It’s because they are. I’m not entirely sure where this misstep came in, but I can guess. I think that someone must have misread the book and thought that memes are passed to the people around you, not your offspring. That’s the only logical explanation.

And besides, we already have a term for internet fads. It’s called going “viral”!

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8 thoughts on “Etymology

  1. Found your site through ComplexActions.Com

    I have to disagree with your analysis however. Dawkins may have started the research on Memetics, but in the time since the mid-80s, there have been a number of other researchers (memeticists) to join the fray. The overwhelming consensus is that memes are more similar to viruses than genes. That is they can be propogated through contact, and more specifically, imitation.

    Dawkins himself considers Religion to be a meme, correct? Religion is not passed down solely from parent to child, but may be experienced, imitated, accepted, and integrated into a persons life. If, then, Religion is a meme, it must be accepted that memes can be passed by contact and imitation.

    Thus, internet phenomenons are classic examples of memes.

    All your memes are belong to ME!!!

    http://memes.org/definition-of-meme

    • Interesting. However, if you were to call the internet fads “memes” in the terms of the “virus-like” school of thought, wouldn’t it be more accurate to simply call it “viral”?

      As for the religion part, while it is possible for someone to adopt a different religion than the one that they’re born into, I think we can agree that (for the most part) people stick with what they were given by their parents. However, if we threw that fact away, you must recognize that the “gene” for religion is being passed down to someone, otherwise it would cease to exist after a single generation.

      Yes, it’s all semantics, I know. Still, if you’re going to do something…

  2. Thing is, semantics is what it’s all about. Especially with a postmodernist like Dawkins. Sure, in 1976 the word was strictly relegated to genetic memory (I mean, that’s essentially what we’re talking about, right?). But in the 34 years since then, it has come to be understood to mean much more. Especially considering that Dawkins was not the FIRST to posit such a notion. The word Mneme, from a greek word for memory which I shall not try to spell at this time, was used for a very similar concept as early as the 1920s, but was inclusive of the broader understanding, much like what we are seeing today.

    Dawkins says he was unaware of this word and it’s usage. Sure. I’ll accept that at face value. In the meantime, I’m perfectly happy lolling my cats, and leeing my roy jenkinses. 🙂

    • True, true. Of course, the key phrase there is “come to be understood”. Words evolve over time, sometimes into things utterly unrelated to the original definition, I know that. I’m just saying that the word “meme” isn’t quite what most think it means, really.

      But, yes, by all means. I might not find many viral trends funny, but you are more than free to enjoy them to your heart’s content.

      Off topic: mnemosyne is an awesome word.

  3. Interesting point you make in this statement: “I might not find many viral trends funny.” I think that the key HERE is that “funny” does not equal “meme”, though I will agree many internet boards, forums, a 4chans have assumed that it does. On the other hand, my enjoyment or lack thereof does not inherently change whether a meme is, in fact, a meme… It only changes whether I have adopted the meme into my memetic code, if you will.

    So for instance, while I grin a little when I see cute kittens with weird captions, I don’t walk around looking for ways to take pictures of my dog and submit them to canhazlolz.com (or whatever). So, I would submit that I have not subscribed to the LOLCat meme.

    The All Your Base meme? Love it. Live it. Bought the Tshirt. And the Linux Tshirt. And the CSharp TShirt. You get the idea.

    • In that case, a “meme” would be nothing more than a social trend. You choose your meme based on a sense of humor, nostalgia, whatever, and it gets coded into your system?

      The problem with your idea that a meme works as a virus is that the host has no control over whether he is infected or not. What you are describing here would be comparable to stopping and thinking “Oh, my, I rather dislike e. coli, so I think that I’ll drink some staphylococcus instead”. Obviously that’s a hyperbolic statement, but you see what I’m saying.

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