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It’s all meme, me me…

When Richard Dawkins coined the word meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, he wanted a word like gene that conveyed the way in which ideas and behaviour spread within society by non-genetic means:

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.

Extract from The Selfish Gene, quoted in the OED

Since it was first coined, the word has also been picked up by the Internet community to describe a piece of information spread by email or via blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

An Internet meme can be almost anything—a joke, a video clip, a cartoon, a news story—and can also evolve as it spreads, with users editing the content or adding comments.

Analysis of the data for meme in the Oxford English Corpus shows that the word’s common collocates (i.e. words habitually used next to each other with a frequency greater than chance) are spread, pass, and transmit. As with the computing sense of viral, the word meme uses the metaphor of disease and infection to convey how rapidly an Internet smash-hit can be created.

Lolcat

Image by Or Hiltch [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons