Several times recently, as I was reading something on the internet, I tripped over the word “meme.” Judging by the context, I surmised that the word was akin to motif, meaning a recurring theme, idea, or design as found in music, literature, or art. However, when I attempted to parse the “meme” of President Obama’s use of teleprompters, I was mystified. If “meme” was akin to motif, it also obviously carried with it an aspect of derision, as an object of ridicule.
I looked up “meme” in my Webster’s New World Dictionary Third College Edition (copyright 1988)—it was not to be found. The word apparently came into usage sometime after 1988. So, I resorted to Wikipedia. As it turns out, “meme” is jargon concocted by Richard Dawkins. . . . . Enough said? (Consider the source?)
The word's meaning only recently, it seems, has mutated and insinuated itself into the mainstream media as the fad term in use by pseudo-intellectuals and talking heads (hence, the Obama-teleprompter- “meme”—which makes absolutely no sense). One mutation of the word’s meaning is, according to “the daily meme” website:
“In the context of . . . blogging and other kinds of personal web sites it’s some kind of list of questions that you saw somewhere else and you decided to answer the questions. Then someone else sees them and does them and so on and so on. I generally consider these to be actual questions and not some multiple choice quizzes that determine some result at the end (what color you are most like, what cartoon character are you, what 80s movie are you).”
Dawkins originally contrived the word to describe “self-replicating and evolving ideas.” He thinks that the origins and perpetuation of ideas have much in common with self-replicating genes. I know. It is nonsensical. The thing that you must understand, however, is that particular ideas that are “memes” to Dawkins are more especially those that he disagrees with and thinks ridiculous—viruses of the mind, as it were—such as religion.
Ironically, Dawkins uses no “science” to validate this gene-like “meme” notion; and logic fails. On the other hand, if he only meant it as a metaphor or a simile (a figure of speech), it is neither compelling nor illuminating. Dawkins’ specialty is reductionism (any method or theory of reducing data, processes, or statements to seeming equivalents that are less complex or developed: usually a disparaging term), to his own detriment.
What to do with “meme,” then? I recommend that every time you hear or read the word “meme” presented with any kind of seriousness, that you feel pity for the person who used the term, just as you would for any verbal fad follower. You might ask them what they mean by “meme.” See if they can define it, or if they know its origins, or if they only know it in its mutations. You might also suggest to them that the baggage attached to the term, its nebulous meanings, and it’s faddism make it a distasteful and annoying blight on the English language and adds nothing to a good conversation, nor brings any illumination to the mind.