Where the Word Meme Comes From

Today I found out where the word meme comes from.

In its early days, “meme”, which incidentally is often mispronounced as “me-me” or “meh-meh”, but in fact should be pronounced “meem”, primarily was only known and used by certain academics, but today this neologism is beginning to reach widespread use thanks to describing the viral spread of jokes, ideas, etc. via the internet.

“Meme” was coined by the often controversial evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.  In it, he states the following:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that 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. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

The French word même that he references means “same” or “alike” (though the meaning changes somewhat depending on how it is used).  The Greek word “mimeme” he derives “meme” from comes from the Ancient Greek μίμημα (mīmēma), meaning “that which is imitated” / “something imitated” / “something copied”.

As stated, Dawkins was hoping that the word would be used as a unit of human cultural transmission, such as a melody, fashion, or catch-phrase, with the idea evolving as it spreads and time passes.  This evolution is primarily spurred by the fact that people refine the memes or simply don’t “copy” the information exactly when they transmit it to another human.  This has since given rise to other derivative words or phrases including:

  • Memetics: which explores the transmission and evolution of cultural ideas in a scientific manner, though often somewhat unsuccessfully with the “scientific” part.
  • Meme Complex or memeplex: memes that have evolved into a symbiotic relationship with other memes.  In terms of internet memes, this would be like the relationship between a meme such as “Herp/Derp” and various other meme elements that make up rage comics. In “real life” memes, this would be like the combined ideas that together form a certain religion.
  • Memotype: the information-content of the meme.
  • Memeoid: people who are so ingrained with some meme that they are willing to sacrifice themselves as a result of it, such as suicide bombers and the like. In a less extreme sense, it could be argued that every single person on the planet is a memeoid of one type or another.
  • Memetic Marketing: the use of memes to virally market some product or business, often using internet memes.

If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also like:

Bonus Facts:

  • Mimema is also a genus of beetles of the family Monotomidae.  In addition, there is a species of moth known as the Hyposmocoma mimema in the Cosmopterigidae family.
  • One of the most popular internet memes of all time, the Demotivator meme, has its origins in a company called Successories.  This company was started by Mac Anderson in 1985.  Among their products were motivational posters with the now classic black background and text underneath a picture.  Around 1998, along came Despair Inc., who started making spoofs of these motivational posters.  In the beginning, these tended to be near exactly the same as their motivational counterparts which tended to feature some artsy photograph and were “office friendly”.  The original demotivators would just change the text to be something depressing instead of uplifting.  The demotivators from Despair Inc. were eventually popularized by the meme generating machine that is 4chan and spread from there.
  • The first reference to the “Herp/Derp” Internet meme was in a work by yet another meme generating power-house, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  The particular work by them that popularized “Derp” was Baseketball. In the movie, at one point the two are caught sniffing a woman’s underwear and Matt Stone yells “Derp!” The two South Park creators have also used it several times in South Park, first appearing in the April 21, 1999 “The Succubus” episode.
  • Memes have been compared to viruses in terms of how they can spread throughout a population, then sometimes go dormant for a time, only to spring up again by eliciting some behavior from its host.
  • German biologist Richard Semon in 1904 suggested a word to mean not only similar to Dawkins’ idea of a meme, but the actual spelling of the word itself was nearly the same.  In his case, he called it a Mneme.
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  • I always assumed it was a corruption of the name of the Greek titaness Mnemosyne (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mnemosyne), who was “the personification of memory in Greek mythology” (and origin of the work mnemonic).

  • Professor Science

    Meme comes from the Greek as you say and similarly paralleled by the French. There are other parallels from the Americans and the Chinese. The Brits, as usual including Dawkins, are the lying phonies about this as they historically are about everything. Dawkins once again proves that his primordial lack of intelligence is roundly reciprocal to the size of his overinflated buttocks. He and his simpleton pseudoscience is to be dismissed, at once.

  • Mimeme is pronounced is not pronounced meemeem. In fact, Dawkins admits to ripping out the portion that sounded like gene, which is not the first part.

  • Excuse me … your own quote shouts out that is should be pronounced as “meh-meh” not meem… the only (because of a misunderstanding) facts that points to meme is the english pronunciation of the Greek word “gene”

    Yet the author clearly wants a greek routed word he says it him self and he clearly reveals to us that he uses the greek pronunciation of “gene” (which is geh-neh) since later he relates mimeme to meme (and mimeme’s ending sounds closer to meh-meh) and also includes the french word même (meh-m ) and the word memory (meh-moh-ree)

    So it is definitely meh-meh and not meem… I always thought little about the people that pronounced memes as meems…

  • Seems pretty obvious that Dawkins as good as plagiarised the term.

  • In other words he almost certainly stole the idea from the earlier scientist and claimed credit for it himself. Dishonest, petty and pretentious.

  • I loved the derivation and sourcing – and the critique.

  • Meme in French is pronounced Mem as in Memory. Dawkins = ridiculous.

  • I originally thought MEME was just an evolution of the word theme. I get that the meme, or idea. is
    gaining prominence, and is likened to the spread of a virus. This adds much texture to its meaning
    over just the word theme. The word only crossed my attention a few years ago and I thought it uncommon and erudite. Now, I just finished reading an insert section in the NY Times, it was used so many times in so many forms, I am now starting to think of it as trite.

  • Why invent a new word when all you’re talking about is a cartoon or graphic image, or, in its most honest, logical and comprehensible sense, an “archetype” or collective idea? Somebody overthought the concept and has turned the idea and word into something a whole generation (the screaming me-mes online) will overuse and render meaningless.

  • I am confused why so many people who replied seem very bitter about this topic. A meme. As spelled is pronounced Meem. When a word is ‘derived’ from another word it’ does not mean it must retain the exact same pronunciation. The reason I looked up the Origen of the word is because in my English class we read a book called Culture Wars written in1999 and uses the word meme and describes it as a unit of information passed from brain to brain and I wanted to know if it was the same concept as current internet memes.