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Memes, tropes, and notions

Q: Is there a distinction between a meme, a trope, and a notion? This came up during a discussion I had with a couple of English professors. We would appreciate your advice and have agreed to follow it.

A: This is the kind of question that can lead into the great Grimpen Mire. Vogue words—and “meme” is especially hot right now—tend to blur as they’re tossed around indiscriminately.

But these three words do have distinct meanings. Simply put, a “notion” exists in a mental form, like an idea or a desire. A “meme” exists in a more tangible form and is contagious, like a quirky fashion or a video clip that goes viral. Finally, a “trope” exists in a literary form, like a figure of speech or a thematic device.

The definitions in standard dictionaries are fairly straightforward. We’ll use those from Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), along with examples of our own in italics.

  • notion: “A conception of or belief about something.” (That’s not my notion of an inexpensive lunch.) … “An impulse or desire, especially one of a whimsical kind.” (She had a notion to send him flowers.)
  • meme: “An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.” (Robotic dogs were a cultural meme a few years ago.) … “An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.” (Who ever thought that a funny cat photo would become a meme?)
  • trope: “A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.” (The author’s favorite trope is hyperbole.) … “A significant or recurrent theme; a motif.” (The play’s references to wills and inheritance serve as a trope.)

As for their etymologies, all these words are derived from Latin or Greek.

“Notion” was a direct borrowing from Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In classical Latin, nōtiōn- or nōtiō meant “concept, idea, legal or intellectual examination,” the OED says, and in post-classical Latin it also meant “knowledge, understanding.” The ultimate source is nōtus (known).

The word entered English in the late 14th century with religious and philosophical meanings that are now rare and have to do with incarnations of the Trinity or with operations in logic. In the 15th century, a more personal meaning emerged, and a “notion” came to mean a whim or an inclination to do something.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a set of mystery plays—that is, dramas depicting biblical events—known as the York Plays, dated sometime before 1450. In the passage, from Play 32 (The Remorse of Judas), Caiaphas rebukes Judas:

“Nowe be my nociens, myght I negh nere þe … schulde I lere þe / To lordis to speke curtaisely” (“Now I have a notion, might I come near thee … to teach thee to speak courteously to lords”).

This more recent example for that sense, from Rebecca West’s novel The Fountain Overflows (1957), will sound more familiar to modern ears: “She could not understand why they had got this silly notion of wearing coats and trousers in bed when nightshirts were so much easier to iron.”

Oxford says a new sense of the word emerged in the 16th century: “a general concept, category, or designation.” The earliest known use is from a Latin grammar, Rudimenta Puerorum in Artem Grammaticalem (2nd ed., 1531), by the Scottish grammarian John Vaus:

“I haue collekit als scortly as I ma, in manere of rude introductione, generale notionis of the aucht partis of orisone” (“I have collected as briefly as I may, as a sort of rough introduction, general notions of the eight parts of speech”).

Related meanings of “notion” followed: a belief, opinion, or theory (first recorded in 1603); an idea or concept (1607); and an inkling, suspicion, or hint (1698). As the OED notes, that last one is common in negative constructions, like “I had no notion,” “they haven’t the slightest notion,” “little notion did he have,” and so on.

Unlike “notion,” the noun “meme” is a modern invention. It was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and first appeared in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). He adapted it, the OED says, from the ancient Greek noun μίμημα (mīmēma, something imitated), which comes from the verb μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai, to imitate).

Here’s the OED citation from Dawkins’s book, in which a “meme” is an element of culture that’s passed along much like a gene:

“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. ‘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. … 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.”

A generation later, “meme” acquired its Internet meaning, which was first recorded in the late 1990s. The OED’s earliest example refers to an animation of a dancing baby: “The next thing you know, his friends have forwarded it on and it’s become a net meme.” (From a transcript of a CNN program, Science and Technology Week, Jan. 24, 1998.)

Finally we come to “trope,” the oldest of the three words. It was borrowed into Old English from Latin or Greek, apparently forgotten, and then reborrowed in the 16th century. As the OED explains, “trope” was “probably a borrowing from Latin” but “perhaps” came from the earlier Greek.

The Latin tropus (figure of speech) can be traced to the Greek noun τρόπος (tropos, turn, direction, or way), from the verb τρέπειν (trepein, to turn, direct, or change). The etymology makes sense if you think of a “trope” as a turn of phrase.

The English word first appeared in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a late 10th-century translation of a Latin work that was probably completed in 731 by the Venerable Bede. This is the OED’s citation:

“Boc de metrica arte, & oþere to þisse geþydde be scematibus & tropes boc” (“A book on the art of meter [poetry], to which is appended another book on figures and tropes”).

After that sighting, the word vanished for centuries, then was reborrowed into English in the time of Henry VIII. (As the OED says, “there is no continuity of use” from Old English to the 16th century.) Here’s the word’s reappearance:

“If ye be so sworne to the litteral sense in this matter, that ye will not in these wordes of Christe, Thys is my bodye, &c., admitte in so playne a speache anye troope.” (From William Tyndale’s The Souper [Supper] of the Lorde, 1533. His argument that the Eucharist should not be interpreted literally led to his death at the stake in 1536.)

Today “trope” also has technical meanings in music, astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics. But it’s still used in many disciplines as it was in Tyndale’s time, to mean figurative or metaphorical language.

The OED’s most recent use is by a specialist in Asian-American studies: “[George F.] Kennan’s writing … is replete with tropes and metaphors of disease … and health” (Jodi Kim’s Ends of Empire, 2010).

“Trope” is also used in cultural criticism to mean “a significant or recurrent theme” or “motif,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a book review: “Barthelme is funning with the eternal trope of fatherhood” (the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 14, 1975).

In science, by the way, the word elements “-trope,” “-tropic,” and “-tropism” are found in words that have to do with change, alteration, turning, revolving, and so on. Examples include “heliotrope” (a plant whose flowers bend toward the sun), “phototropic” (attracted toward light), “geotropism” (growth in response to gravity), and “hydrotropism” (growth directed toward moisture).

In fact, as we wrote on the blog in 2012, “tropism” is a word in itself. It’s a scientific term that means a turning, but it’s also used metaphorically in the sense of an attraction or an inclination toward something.

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