Most of us are familiar with memes, those images with varying text that propagate, often virally, through the internet, but where does the word meme come from?

It may be surprising to many, but the word meme was coined by biologist and famed promoter of atheism Richard Dawkins in 1976. Dawkins was trying to label those bits of culture that spread and become iconic. He considered these bits of culture to be analogous to biological genes. From his book The Selfish Gene:

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which 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 [...] 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.

It wasn’t until around 1998 that meme was applied to the internet images we know today. While this is a more specific application of Dawkins’s original sense, it is true to general principles: they are cultural units; they spread, with successful ones outcompeting less prolific ones; and, like biological genes, they can mutate (the changing text that overlays the images).

The first citation in this newer, more specific, sense in the OED is from the CNN program Science and Technology Week of 24 January 1998, in reference to the computer-generated image of a dancing baby that had appeared on the television show Ally McBeal that month:

The next thing you know, his friends have forwarded it on and it’s become a net meme.

From Richard Dawkins to Ally McBeal to internet phenomenon, but a bad start for a short, little word.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2001, s. v. meme, n.

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