Meme – What does it Mean? By Angela Caldin

A New Word in my Vocabulary

I discovered a new word the other day: meme. I asked several people of my acquaintance whether they had heard it, and everyone, except one cleverclogs, said they’d never heard it before. I read it in an article in the Daily Mail, so I reckoned if that rag knew about it, I should too.

(See * below if you want to read the article which provides a good illustration of what a meme is.)

Definition of Meme

A meme, pronounced to rhyme with theme, acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other phenomena..

The word meme is a shortening (modelled on gene) of mimeme from Ancient Greek ‘to imitate’, and it was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catch-phrases, fashion and the technology of building arches. So the word has been around for almost 40 years.

Proponents think that memes may evolve by natural selection in a similar way to that of genes in biological evolution, doing this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success.

An Ancient Meme

A popular ancient meme that probably originated during the Sui Dynasty in China is of three hares, chasing one another in a circle with their ears attached in a kind of optical illusion. The image came out of China and spread so that it eventually became a popular architectural feature in medieval Europe. Eventually it came to Britain, where it began to appear on churches and buildings everywhere. It is used to symbolise fertility, the lunar cycle and the Trinity.

Three hares in Paderborn Cathedral. Symbol of the Trinity, fertility and the lunar cycle.

Methods of Transmission of Memes

Malcolm Gladwell wrote, ‘A meme is an idea that behaves like a virus – that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects.’ Memes can replicate vertically or horizontally and may also lie dormant for long periods of time. They spread by the behaviours that they generate in their hosts and imitation is an important factor. Imitation may involve the copying of an observed behaviour of another individual, but transmission may also be through an inanimate source, such as a book or a musical score.  Researchers have observed memetic copying in other species, including hominids, dolphins and birds. Some commentators have likened the transmission of memes to the spread of contagions. Social contagions such as fads, hysteria, copycat crime, and copycat suicide exemplify memes seen as the contagious imitation of ideas.

Internet Memes

An Internet meme may take the form of an image, hyperlink, video, picture, website, or hashtag. It may be just a word or phrase, such as ‘U mad bro’ or a song such as Gangnam Style, the most-liked video in YouTube history. These tend to spread from person to person via social networks, blogs, email, or news sources.

An Internet meme may stay the same or may evolve over time, by chance or through commentary, imitations, parody, or by incorporating news accounts about itself. Internet memes can spread extremely rapidly, sometimes reaching world-wide popularity within a few days. They used to be the preserve of the young and are often formed from some social interaction, pop culture reference, cult adverts or embarrassing situations. Their rapid growth and impact has attracted the attention of both researchers and industry. Academically, researchers model how they evolve and predict which memes will survive and spread throughout the Web. Commercially, they are used in viral marketing where they are an inexpensive form of mass advertising.

I find it hard to take in that this word has been around for so long and yet I never heard it until a few days ago. How many other words are lurking out there, I wonder, ready for me to discover and investigate. If you’ve found any yourself, then please do let me know.



3 Comments on “Meme – What does it Mean? By Angela Caldin

  1. You’ve lost me now. But while I’m here, please explain dependent, dependant, independant, independent, principle, principal, and what is the correct way of pronouncing controversy?

    • Hello Marge and thanks for your comment. Sorry if the meme thing has left you a bit befuddled.

      I have done a short blog on principle and principal which you’ll find if you click here:

      I will write something on dependent/ant and publish it as soon as I can. has the following on the pronunciation of controversy which might help:
      ‘There are two possible pronunciations of the word controversy: one puts the stress on the con- and the other puts it on the -trov-. The second pronunciation, though common, is still widely held to be incorrect in standard English.’

  2. Pingback: Memes: Evolution of culture, traditions and behavior.. « ArtoVivo

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