Where did the word ‘meme’ come from?

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a huge Richard Dawkins fanboy. Along with the late Christopher Hitchens, he has dramatically empowered my religious worldview and debating skills, whilst his books have been of significant education. As an evolutionary biologist, he has been at the forefront of the gene-centred view of evolution, and his 1976 publication The Selfish Gene put forward the hypothesis that a lineage is expected to evolve to maximise its inclusive fitness; being the number of copies of its genes passed on globally rather than by a particular individual.

In addition to the DNA molecule, Dawkins explored the possibility of there being other replicating entities and wrote that ‘a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet… still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily above in its primaeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.’ He defined this new replicator as a ‘meme’:

“The new soup is the soup of human culture. 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’. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

God love the man. I wonder if he could have guessed that, 30 years later, this new addition to the dictionary would be best used to define un-PC .GIF images posted on social media sites as opposed to ‘the soup of human culture’. But then again, I suppose in  a way these memes (a few of my favourite shown below) are extensions of our ever-developing sharing culture. The last one is of particular pertinence.

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