This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode on the origin of the word ‘meme’.
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Hello and welcome back to English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.
Today’s episode is inspired by my son, Thomas. Thomas is 10 years old, and he recently got his first mobile phone. He delights in showing me the latest viral videos from Tik Tok, talking about who Liverpool football club might or might not buy, and showing me memes.
So many memes.
Some of them are great. A few of them are pure genius. But many are terrible.
It was during one of these latest meme marathons when he was showing me meme after meme after meme, that I remembered the origin of the word. I forced him to stop showing me more memes to tell him the history of the word. He pretended to listen and then, as soon as I stopped, showed me more memes.
So today, I am going to tell you, my dear listener, the origin of the word ‘meme’.
Remember that you can find the transcript for this episode on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com. A transcript is a written version of what has been spoken. Many English students find reading a transcript to be very helpful. You can identify specific words that you haven’t understood and compare the spoken to the written version. It is totally free and you can find it, along with all the past episodes of this podcast at EnglishwithStephen.com.
And now, back to the origin of the word ‘meme’.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘meme’? If you are like most people, you will think of a short video or image on the internet that has become extremely popular and gone viral. These memes often include cats, but not always.
Well, the word ‘meme’ actually has a very different origin story.
Richard Dawkins is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Oxford University. In recent years he has become even more famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for his promotion of atheism and rejection of all things religious.
But before he found this role promoting non-religion, he wrote a number of books and articles about evolutionary biology. Some of these books and articles were for other academics, and some were for the average layperson.
Have you heard the word ‘layperson’ before? A layperson, or a layman, is a person who is not an expert or who does not have detailed knowledge of a subject. You sometimes hear the phrase ‘Can you explain it to me in layman’s terms, please?’ This phrase is kind of like saying ‘Can you explain it to me without using long, complicated words and ideas that only an expert would understand?’
Anyway, when it comes to evolutionary biology, I am a layperson. I have no expert knowledge of the subject. This doesn’t stop me from being interested in the subject, and once, many years ago, I picked up a book called ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins. The idea of the book was to explain the field of evolutionary biology to people like me, the average layperson.
The main idea of ‘The Selfish Gene’ is that genes, the information inside every person that enables our bodies to work, do not care about us as people. Genes have one priority. They want to reproduce. They use us, or animals, or plants, as a way to reproduce. When we have children, our genes are passed onto our children. Another way of saying this is that our genes have been successful in reproducing.
In the book, Richar Dawkins described genes as little packets of biological information that want to reproduce and reproduce. Each gene might be a bit different when it has reproduced, but that is not a problem. In fact, it is an advantage. As a gene adapts it can be more useful to its environment and increase the chance of reproducing again. The only goal is for that packet of information to move to the next generation where it can try to reproduce again.
So, that is Richard Dawkins’s view of genes. Genes, does it sound like anything to you?
Well, in another part of the book, Dawkins tried to create analogies of other things that want to reproduce. Instead of packets of biological information, he talked about packets of cultural information.
The idea is something like this.
Shakespeare wrote his amazing plays and sonnets around the year 1600. All of his works are packets of cultural information. They are handed down from one generation to another so we have been enjoying Shakespeare for over 400 years.
But there is more to it than that. Shakespeare has been translated into many languages. Shakespeare has been adapted for films, songs, musicals, and ballet. Lines from Shakespeare appear in songs or are quoted by politicians. Quotes appear on magnets that are then placed on fridges all around the world.
If you come to my house, you will find a fridge magnet with the quote ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers’. I bought it for my wife as a present because she is a lawyer. But we also have a cup with the quote ‘What fools these mortals be,’ from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and a poster from Macbeth.
If you are interested, I will post some of these images on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com.
So, while we still have the original plays of Shakespeare, his work has changed and adapted as it has reproduced. It is not just a play to be studied at school by bored 15 year-olds. By changing to become films, songs, and fridge magnet quotes it grows stronger and more likely to survive.
And it isn’t just Shakespeare. Tunes, jokes, and fashion all reproduce themselves to stay relevant to the culture. The things we do, like making pots or building bridges, all adapt and reproduce.
So Richard Dawkins was trying to show that cultural information is similar to biological information in that they both try to reproduce and adapt to the environment.
And all he needed was a name for these packets of cultural information. As we have genes for biological information, he decided to call cultural information memes. Genes, memes.
The thing is, though, that Dawkins’s book was written in 1976, a long time before the internet was a thing. After the book was written the word ‘meme’ started to be used in more intelligent circles to describe ideas that catch on or become popular. However, the word was still not in everyday use.
And then, in 1998, CNN had an interview, and they were talking about images that were reproduced quickly on computers and shared on the internet. During this interview, somebody use the word ‘net meme’, and that was the beginning of a whole new life for the word ‘meme’.
I kind of like this, because the history of the word ‘meme’ is an example of a ‘meme’. It started out as a semi-academical word to describe an idea of a packet of cultural information. It then reproduced and adapted to talk about any idea that became popular. And then the internet came along and the word changed again to mean any picture, video or song that goes viral.
What a great example of the phenomenon that Richard Dawkins was trying to present.
What do you think of that story? If you like it, I have a lot more stories about the origin of words, as well as the history of the English language and language learning tips. You can find them on my site EnglishwithStephen.com, or by subscribing to this podcast on your favourite podcast app.
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Thanks for listening. I hope to speak to you again next week.
Bye for now!