Kate (mskatej) wrote,

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The pronunciation of the word "meme"

Today, I educate. By proxy.

Apparently no one knows how to pronounce "meme". Tom, my very clever best friend, told me a while back that it rhymed with "theme" and on Saturday night, I asked him to clarify this, and then I told him to write me an essay about it, so I could post it in my journal. And he did it!


The term 'meme' was coined by world-famous biologist Richard Dawkins in
his seminal 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene"; Chapter 11 if anyone wants to
look it up. Dawkins spends the previous 10 chapters talking about how
Darwinian processes of natural selection work upon the gene. Chapter 11
marks a new turn in the book, toward culture.

His belief is that culture cannot be reduced to genetics, that is, it's
not all 'just in the genes'. Instead, he speculates, cultural change is
subject to a Darwinian process of selection too, but one acting upon
cultural units rather than genetic replicators. In nature, genes compete
and are selected; in culture, the same processes of competition and
selection occur, but not upon the gene... So what object does competition
and selection occur upon, Dawkins asks? The gene exists and can be
identified clearly in nature - but there is nothing yet found that is
comparable in culture, that we can examine under a microscope. But ... for
the time-being, imagine that there is - some object that refers to all the
ideas that might exist in the brain and be expressed in culture, that are
passed from human to human - whether something as simple as a gesture like
a high-five, or something as complex as Hamlet; the play not the cigar. He
invents a general term for all such things - meme.

Why meme?

"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'."

Pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'! So we have an answer to the question,
why the term 'meme'? And the answer in-part is, explicitly so, because it
sounds a bit like 'gene'. In other words, nature has genes, culture has
memes. Both are subject to Darwin's Law, therefore... the new term HAS to
rhyme (3/4 rhyme I suppose) with gene!

Ok, so that's the invention of the term. It spread fairly quickly in
science and the everyday world before the internet really got going - in
fact it was first considered for the OED in 1988. So I *assume* the term
reached the blogosphere via Dawkins, and the everyday world that overlaps
a little with scientific knowledge and speculation. *However* it is
*possible* that a bunch of French bloggers, who did not know Dawkins,
started spreading 'mêmes' (this would translate as 'sames') amongst
themselves, and that this crossed over to the Anglo-blogosphere at some
point. That would be odd, given that the word meme was and is much more
well-known in the English speaking world than the word même, and also that
the scientific meaning of the term is a pretty good fit for how memes do
actually operate in the blogosphere - much more so than 'sames'.

But that could all just be a coincidence!

Yeah, right.


Hmmm. I think 'sames' fits quite well, actually, Tom. But what the hell would I know?

ETA. I questioned Tom about this and he responded with:


No, the word meme implies culture spreads like a virus (viral meme) and is also subject to tiny transcription errors or mutations (ie when memes differ from person to person). It fits much better, although the word mêmes comes presumably from the same root. Anyway mêmes is closer in its meaning of 'sames' to 'equivalents' or 'alikes' rather than 'replications' or 'copies' or 'versions' - whereas memes is closer to the latter words. Also même has two translations - one meaning 'same' or 'alike', but the other more principal one meaning 'even' in its emphatic sense. So *even* the most obstinate bloggers must recognize that the blogger's term meme is a *mutated replication* of Dawkins's term meme. Of course it could mutate further toward the French sense, but only if bloggers on the whole turn out to be stupid and ignorant.

Tags: meme
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