The Grammarphobia Blog

The meme generation

Q: I believe the word “meme” can be used in a broader sense than the way you described it on WNYC the other day. I first encountered it when I read John H. McWhorter’s Losing the Race, a book in which the word is used to encompass a self-destructive subculture in the black community.

A: You’re right. I said on the air that I thought a “meme” was a linguistic unit that couldn’t be divided into smaller parts. But I was wrong. That’s a “morpheme,” not a “meme.”

A “meme” (pronounced MEEM) is a unit of cultural information (an idea, a style, a usage) that spreads from one mind to another. In the example you cited, anti-intellectualism among young African-Americans could be an example of a meme.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “meme” as “a cultural element or behavioural trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.”

It’s a shortened form of “mimeme,” which is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “that which is imitated.”

The term was coined by Richard Dawkins, who said in his book The Selfish Gene (1976): “The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”

The word “mimeme,” Dawkins continued, “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,” he said, adding, “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.”

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