What is a meme? The meaning and history

Memes didn’t start with the internet. Some linguists claim that people have been using memes to communicate for centuries. Memes are widely known as channels for cultural conversation and an opportunity to participate in internet trends (trust us, the Times is on it). Even if you are not extremely online, you probably or didn’t consciously participate in a meme trend.

The word “meme” has been used 60 times in the New York Times crossword puzzle, according to XWordInfo since the puzzle’s inception in the 1940s. While it’s difficult to identify the first-ever meme, British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is credited with introducing the term in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene.” In Mr Dawkins’ original conception, a “meme” was analogous to a “phoneme,” the smallest unit of sound in speech, or a “morpheme,” the smallest meaningful subunit of a word, Kirby Conrod, a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, said. “I would explain the concept of a meme — a self-replicating piece of information — by asking someone about an inside joke they had with friends or an advertising jingle that’s been stuck in their head for 20 years,” said Professor Conrod. “That piece of information, the joke or the jingle, replicates itself because we humans like to share and repeat things. When we repeat the joke or sing the jingle, that’s an example of the meme reproducing itself. The word ‘meme’ appeared before first appeared in the New York Times Crossword in 1953 with the designation “Same: French.” The most recent appearance was on December 24, 2021, with the designation “Something that gets passed around a lot.”

People use memes to communicate as long as they’ve used a symbolic system, Professor Conrod said. D. Andrew Price, head of content at Memes.com, agreed. mr. Dawkins “just coined the term for something that has literally existed forever,” he said. “A meme is just an idea ripping through the public consciousness.”

In French, the word “même” translates to “the same” and the Greek word “mimoúmai” means “imitate”. In his book, Dawkins said, “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.” He wanted to use a monosyllable that sounded like “gene.” Dawkins said, “It could also be seen as related to ‘memory’ or to the French word même.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines a meme as “a concept, belief, or practice understood as a unit of cultural information that can be passed from person to person, subject to influences in a manner analogous to natural selection.”

Like many words in the English language, the word “meme” has undergone a semantic shift over time. In an internet-saturated world, “memes and their meanings are co-constructed by multiple users in a social context,” Jennifer Nycz, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in Georgetown University’s Department of Linguistics, said. “This is really no different than any other process of communication or knowledge creation,” she added. “It’s especially striking in the case of memes because people construct them explicitly and then post them to the world for comment.”

Popular meme creator Saint Hoax, who has three million Instagram followers, defines a meme as a piece of media that is repurposed to convey a cultural, social, or political expression, primarily through humor. “It has the ability to capture insight in a way that is completely in line with the zeitgeist,” Saint Hoax said.

Memes can also accelerate the popularity of certain forms of entertainment. “Memes now have the potential to help new TV shows or even songs gain popularity by becoming the foundation of a viral trend,” said Samantha Sage, co-founder and chief creative officer of Betches, a media company focused on millennial women.

Notable pop culture events are breeding grounds for meme making. This year, Instagram even hired Saint Hoax to cover the Met Gala as the first-ever meme correspondent, knowing that interesting, culturally relevant content would come out of the event and spread on social platforms. “Memes are basically editorial cartoons for the internet age,” Saint Hoax said. “The power of a meme lies in its transferability and unique talent for being cross-cultural.” And memes have an uncanny ability to capture a moment while distracting people from reality. She sums up the era we live in and also reminds us that it’s not that serious, said Lola Tash, one of the founders of the meme account My Therapist Says.

Memes are shareable by nature. “In a world where you spend hours a day scrolling through news feeds, the meme format catches your eye, and most of it can be read and understood in seconds,” said Samir Mezrahi, the deputy director of social media at BuzzFeed, who also has Kale Salad, a meme account with nearly four million followers.

Creating and sharing memes creates a sense of community online while maintaining a sense of exclusivity. “Memes bring people together through humor and can act as a catalyst for the creation of social or political commentary,” said Kit Chilvers, the chief executive and founder of Pubity Group, a collection of social media accounts with over more than 20 million in total. 80 million followers. “Memes can often be quite exclusive, as only people familiar with the origin of the meme will understand,” Chilvers added.

It would take a long time to dive into every popular meme that graces the internet, but there are a few notable meme culture moments that provide a foundation for understanding the constantly evolving way of communicating. For example, many people I spoke to referred to LOLcats, a trend of funny pictures of cats with text on them, as one of the original meme trends. Another example of a widespread meme trend is Rickrolling, where unexpected links were added to the music video for singer Rick Astley’s 1987 hit song ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. The music video now has more than 1.1 billion views on YouTube. .

Meme culture is constantly evolving and the future of memes is unpredictable, but some of the most popular meme makers on the web have ideas of where it might go. “I think memes will become NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and we’ll see creators sell their best work as digital assets,” said Haley Sacks, founder of the Instagram account @mrsdowjones. “I would buy a meme NFT,” she added. mr. Price, of Memes.com, predicted that in five years — or sooner — every cultural moment and every news story will have an accompanying meme, and that meme will be a big part of mainstream conversation about that event. “Memes on the Internet took what already occurs naturally in the way we communicate and reinforced it by making it global and simple,” he said.

What can I say? The girls who get it get it and the girls who don’t get it don’t.

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