Where did the term ‘meme’ come from?

Where did the term ‘meme’ come from?

'Meme' was originally a stuffy academic term but the internet has since hijacked it and made it its own.
27 Jun, 2024

Back in the day, eloquently written love letters sent via pigeons could make or break relationships. Today, a funny meme sent over Instagram holds the same power.

Whether it’s a photo of Adnan Siddiqui with a backdrop of burning bottles, or that of Maria B shared over an Insta DM, memes have become an undeclared expression of love and our cultural contribution to society.

But while we revel in the latest Chahat Fateh Ali Khan “song” or watch Zhalay Sarhadi recreate the viral “Just Because” video, and pass it on, it’s time we stopped and read about where the term “meme” actually came from.

Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene without knowing he was giving a name to the internet’s favourite pastime. Today, the word has been gleefully hijacked by all of us.

Spawning Grumpy Cat, Ganji Churail, Gopi Bahu and Overly Attached Girlfriend, we know memes as funny things we see online and forward to our friends.

Dawkins, however, crafted the word to describe an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, much like genes transfer biological information. Picture it as cultural DNA, zipping around from brain to brain like a particularly persistent mosquito.

Dawkins once presented the actual definition of meme to the internet’s favourite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on StarTalk. He called it a “unit of cultural inheritance and the analogue of the gene in cultural inheritance.” A meme could be anything that leaps from IP address to IP address, burrowing into our collective consciousness.

Think family heirlooms that get passed down through generations, except they’re infinitely more shareable. Some memes have higher communicability, as Tyson put it, meaning that they spread faster and wider, like a catchy tune that you can’t get out of your head. Units of culture can include tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes, etc.

According to Dawkins, the modern usage of the term isn’t too far off from his definition. He told Wired, “It’s anything that goes viral. In the original introduction to the word meme in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, I did actually use the metaphor of a virus. So when anybody talks about something going viral on the internet, that is exactly what a meme is and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that.”

So, next time you see a meme of a cat wearing a monocle or a dog speaking wisdom like an ancient sage, remember: you’re witnessing cultural inheritance in action. Just like your great-grandma’s sari, but way cooler and much more likely to make you laugh.


Syed Hasni Jun 27, 2024 05:23pm
A meme is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online, especially through social media.” Before internet memes became popular in the 21st century, British scientist Richard Dawkins used the term meme in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. He defined it as “a unit of cultural transmission.” The term has since evolved to describe the internet memes we know today.
Taj Ahmad - USA Jun 27, 2024 06:42pm
In the past 20 plus years, what we can expect then is possible now and that is our present social media and internet and TikTok etc etc. I don’t know where our young and future generations heading after we die. For best of luck to everyone now is we should slow down in new inventions of any things specially in electronics items.