Saturday, July 5, 2008

don't you just love words

I have become fascinated in the last six months with memes. They are every where in the world of blogging. I know some people whose blogs are entirely composed of memes, a different one for each day of the week.

Although the context made it immediately clear what "meme" meant in the blogosphere -- a pattern or concept for a blog post that many people copied and used simultaneously (like "Thursday Thirteen" or "Friday Skywatch"), I do not remember ever having seen the word "meme" before I encountered it in blogs this past year.

I wondered if perhaps it was related to the concept of schemata from psychology. A schemata is a mental principle or structure around which an individual organizes their experiences in order to make sense of them.

Yesterday I searched the various dictionaries in our house, looking for the word "meme." It did not exist in the 1941 Webster's Collegiate Dictionary that I inherited from my mother. [A really wonderful dictionary that even includes the meanings of common English first names - which was how I learned that both the first and middle names on my birth certificate meant "a lily".] The word could also not be found in my prized Random House Unabridged Dictionary from 1983. [Even at 50 percent off I spent more on that then any other book I've ever purchased, especially after adjusting for inflation.] Even my husband's American Heritage Dictionary from 1991 does not contain the word.

Today, I took up the question on the computer, beginning with the Merriam Webster digital dictionary John got me for my birthday just a few years ago. [There's a hard back bound dictionary that came with the CD, but it's in my office 15 miles away.] Sure enough, the word meme appears in my digital dictionary, which states that a meme is "an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture" and that it originated in 1976, from the word mimesis which means imitation or mimicry. The word meme also appears in French where it means "same." The phrase "tout de meme" in French means "all the same" and its used the same way we'd use the phrase as a disclaimer at the beginning of a sentence, a synonym for "nevertheless."

A bit more exploration on the Internet, reveals that "meme" in its current American usage was coined by British, evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins considered meme to be the cultural analogy of "gene" the biological transmitter of information.
Richard Dawkins's [sic] term for an idea considered as a replicator, especially with the connotation that memes parasitise [sic] people into propagating them much as viruses do.
Memes can be considered the unit of cultural evolution. Ideas can evolve in a way analogous to biological evolution. Some ideas survive better than others; ideas can mutate through, for example, misunderstandings; and two ideas can recombine to produce a new idea involving elements of each parent idea.
The term is used especially in the phrase "meme complex" denoting a group of mutually supporting memes that form an organised belief system, such as a religion. Source: meme. The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing. Denis Howe. (accessed: July 05, 2008).

Further perusal of the memes on the Internet, expands the concept of meme in two directions: 1) a phrase, idea, image, video, etc. that "goes viral" and is transmitted all over the Internet, replicated in thousands or even millions of places; and 2) an organizing framework, set of questions, or task that bloggers borrow and use to express themselves through a standardized formula.

The first form of meme appears to date back to 1996, to the early World Wide Web, and one of the first memes of this sort was the "dancing baby" a simple animated gif file. The television series Ally McBeal contributed to the spread of this meme. I was unable to find similar information about the early blog memes, but one or two blogs or weblogs can be dated back to 1994, with the term "weblog" being coined in 1997, and shortened to "blog" in 1999. The first blogging software and hosting sites appeared in 1998 and 1999. So its likely that the first blogging memes appeared about the same time.

More than you ever wanted to know about memes!!


denis said...

Dear Sunflower,

You quoted FOLDOC thus:

Richard Dawkins's [sic]...

which makes me wonder which of us misunderstands either the use of "sic" or the possessive form of a name ending in "s". Can you please enlighten me?

-- Denis Howe (Editor,

Sue said...

denis, given that I was awarded a dictionary back in 1979 by one of my thesis advisors for being "the worst speller" he'd ever encountered in his long career, it could be that I am wrong on both the use of the possesive and the use of sic. :)

However, according to Merriam-Webster's Manual for Writers and Editors (1998) page 64 "The possessive of plural proper names, and of some singular proper names ending in an s or z sound, is made by adding just an apostrophe." and "The possessive of singular proper names ending in an s or z sound may be formed by adding either -'s or just an apostrophe." So the original apostrophe use was not an "error," but neither is my preference for just a final apostrophe an error, and since I systematically avoid using an additional s after the apostrophe, this usage is inconsistent with my normal prose, making the use of [sic] appropriate. The Latin word "sic" merely means "thus" or "so" and its parenthetical use denotes that the preceeding word, phrase or passage was "written intentionally or has been quoted vertbatim." (Random House Unabridged 1983) So use of that notation does not mean that an error has been made, only that the author wishes the reader to know (when applied in a quotation) that the word or usage was thus in the original.

denis said...

Thank you very much for your thorough reply. I doubt I will ever drop the "s" off "Denis's", after years of believing it was obligatory, but it's nice to know I have a choice. And I had never thought of "sic" as implying anything but an error. I am indeed enlightened now.

Incidentally, if I may risk questioning your article once more, I think you draw rather too strong a connection between memes and the Internet. While the Internet has undoubtedly accelerated the spread of memes, and there are memes which only exist thanks to the Internet, memes in Dawkins's original sense have existed as long as brains have - he cites bird song as an example.

Sue said...

Denis, you are indeed correct. As Dawkins defined the term it applies to any transfer of cultural elements or complexes of cultural elements. It applies to things as diverse the spread of agriculture more than 6,000 years ago, the spread of Christianity 2,000 years ago, the spread of what Max Weber called "the Spirit of Capitalism" 300 to 400 years ago, and the spread of the catch phrase "would you believe?" from Get Smart in the 1960's. It's just that I never ran across the term until the last six months, when I started reading more and more blogs. Although I've read other things by Dawkins, I'd never read The Selfish Gene -- obviously an oversight I need to address.

Qaro said...

Gosh, I learn as much from the comments as from the original post!

Never heard the word "schemata" before, cool.

I think I read about memes in a science magazine in the late '80's or 90's. (Geez, I feel all paranoid about my apostrophes now :) Much of what you quoted sounded kind of familiar. Must have been about Dawkins.

(Remember the internet back then? Yikes, nothing near as pretty as even the blogs we have now. And SLOW.)

Qaro said...

Oops, there's more. Sorry!

You have an Unabridged dictionary? I am so jealous!!!

My name means Lily too! It's also Sue. But I don't want to confuse.

(I am not especially concealed, but it's harder to Google straight to me. My nickname refers to database querys.)

Sue said...

I do have an unabridged dictionary. I spent $80 on it in December of 1986, which was half-off. We use it all the time, so I keep in out on top a bookshelf in the living room. Unfortunately my cats think it's agreat place to perch. Don't know how much you know about cats -- but they throw up often, usually on their favorite perch. So the cover of my dictionary is dreadful, but then it's what's inside that matters!

Jessica G said...

Wow. Thank you Sue!

I always thought "meme" just meant it was about "Me! Me!" since all of the ones that I have encountered were short little quizzes and what not.

Qaro said...

What's inside...(?) The book, not the cat, right? (Hehe)

"Me! Me!" Jessica, that is awesome!

Sue said...

qaro -- I suppose what's inside the cat matters too!! lol.