Wednesday, July 11, 2007


It is, no doubt, mere confirmation that I'm really not a word person, but the word meme has vaguely, half-consciously puzzled me for a long while, and I never actually got around to giving it much thought. (Relevance: It was used here and here in a quote on this blog and picked up in a comment by Oscar Madison.)

It's from (evolutionary) biology, but I didn't realize at all that Richard Dawkins, now more famous than ever, had coined it. The wikipedia entry defines it like this, which sounds pretty reasonable to me:
  1. Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture, and ethnicity.
  2. A self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having a resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics).
As the full entry points out, the success of a new scientific term in popular usage is remarkable in some ways, but I find the current blog usage striking somehow: The definition is extraordinarily broad, surely by intent, and genes (the model for the term) spread in very specific ways (if not as specifically as folks used to think). Blog and internet memes seems far more focused and have a very particular kind of transmission. There is a little lexical gap, I suppose, but we've got lots of stuff piled into this general semantic field: fad, trend, craze, fashion, vogue, movement. Most of those sound old-fashioned or too formal, so maybe it's that kind of hip gap that we constantly renew our vocabulary for, like intensifiers.

Thinking back to Jan Freeman's column where peevologist was first used, she wrote:
New usages don't wait for vacancies in the vocabulary; they just show up at work and make themselves useful. When one succeeds, we're good at explaining it after the fact: We needed just that word, with just that nuance, we say, whether it's Shakespeare's puke or the 300-year-old bye-bye or today's dumbing down.
Even after the fact, I'm not quite sure I get the success of this one. In sharp contrast to peevologist.

Had some glitch on getting the URL for the image, but if you do an image search, it's instantly findable.

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