Who Invented the Word Meme?

Even if they are ubiquitous now, memes still need to be explained. I mean, some people still don’t know what a meme is—mostly people of a certain age. We may think—by that I mean that I thought—memes are still a recent concept, but it turns out it’s not the case at all.

Where did the word meme come from?

Being a word, we mostly use in connection with Internet content, it’s almost surprising that it found its origin in science—and not in some obscure pop culture of the ’80s.

The official definition of “meme” in the dictionary is: “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.”

The word “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene:

“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’.”

1976 was a long time ago (in Internet time, not geological time, of course). How did the word was introduced to the Internet generation?

There were always memes on the Internet, or in our lives, but it was in the 1990s that someone explained it in a way that help introduce the word “meme” in our daily life.

“Distracted boyfriend” is one of the most famous meme today. It originated from a stock photograph uploaded to iStock in 2015 by photographer Antonio Guillem.

In 1994, Mike Godwin wrote an op-ed for Wired titled “Meme, Counter-meme.” In it, he talked about his work exploring the memefication of the Nazis—he noticed that everything was compared to the Nazis on the Internet.

Yes, that’s what led to the famous Godwin’s law:

“As a discussion on the Internet grows longer, the likelihood of a person/s being compared to Hitler or another Nazi, increases.”

Since then, memes became something more. They’re not just text anymore. Pictures, video, music … everything becomes a meme!

I don’t do a lot of “vocabulary” articles for now. In fact, I only wrote about Who Invented the Word Nerd? You can suggest other words for future articles in the comment section.

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