Field of memes
If you study linguistics, you have to get used to words that end in -eme: phoneme, morpheme, sememe (or seme), which, very roughly defined, are units of sound, form, and meaning.
The entry in The Oxford English Dictionary for the suffix -eme says, “in Linguistics the termination of many names of significant or distinctive units of structure of some kind in the lexicon, grammar, and phonology of languages, e.g., grapheme, lexeme, morpheme, phoneme, sememe, toneme.”
Add to this, I guess, meme—a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1975 book The Selfish Gene. Derived from the Greek word mimesis, or ‘imitation’, the term meme, as Dawkins defines it, is “a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation…. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”
Not being a sociologist, I hadn’t really paid much attention to the concept, or the word for it, until its recent explosion in popular use. It first came to my attention when a friend mentioned an “Internet meme” in an e-mail to me a while back, and I asked what she meant by the word; to her it was a running theme of some kind.
I’d meant to investigate, but then forgot about doing so until I read “When Funny Goes Viral” in the July 18 New York Times. In that article, the following sentence appears: “The department of media, culture and communication at New York University brought in a trio of performers for the main event at its undergraduate conference this winter to give a presentation called MemeFactory, a fast-paced talk with three slide projectors running simultaneously, addressing practically every stupid joke—or Internet meme, to use the common catch-all term—that’s ricocheted across the Web in the past 10 years.”
Now, hold on, I thought: a meme is more than a joke, isn’t it? So I decided to investigate, and it seems that meme is now the buzzword of the moment.
In edited articles, the Times still tends to gloss the term; besides “stupid joke,” I also found “viral online phenomen[on],” and the more helpful “fashionable term for a cultural symbol or idea transmitted virally.” The one that really nailed it (because “virally” seems to limit the sphere of influence to the Internet) was the following: “The meme of the parodies—the cultural kernel of them, the part that’s contagious and transmissible—has proved surprisingly hardy, almost unnervingly so.”
If some of these glosses are more helpful than others, none is inaccurate. But if you look at the way commenters on the Times site are using the word, we can see clearly how, where buzzwords are concerned, simply using them is more important than knowing what they mean. The following are a few of the uses of meme from comments (and one transcript), along with the perfectly serviceable words that I suggest it is supplanting:
The “racists crying racism” meme is being pushed hard, on multiple fronts, all centered around the president.
My guess is that some district, somewhere, had a Special Ed Week and it got attached to that meme.
For concept (or perhaps practice):
If the old Reagan meme of voodoo economics of “Trickle Down” is continued, after it has failed for the last 30 years, then we all lose. . . .
[Much] has been made of the failure of the MSM to represent climate science to the public accurately—can you follow up on that meme Andy?
For repeated assertion (this overlaps with theme):
Mr. Kristof seems to buy into the religious right’s meme that all prostitution is a form of slavery.
Right now the agencies seem to be following Wall Street’s new favorite meme that “runaway government spending” in response to the (brought to you by Wall Street) crisis represents a mortal threat. . .
I’ve seen a peculiar meme surfacing here and there lately—the assertion that people like me are exaggerating how bad our current. . .
And here’s one use that I think reflects what Dawkins intended (from an edited article, not a comment):
The video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”—which won song of the year—was an omnipresent visual meme over the last year, echoed in endless fan-made tributes on YouTube.
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