What Is a “Meme”?

Are you sure you know?

Lately, everyone seems to be creating memes, sharing memes, talking about memes, and commenting on memes in social media—but what in the world is a meme?

Meme, a neologism[1] that first appeared in the 1970s, is a behavior or an idea imitated or shared widely in a culture. The word, pronounced meem, is derived from the Greek word miméme (“same, alike”). It remained a fairly obscure word until the last couple of years, when the Internet and social media infused it with new life. According to lexicographer Bryan Garner, a meme is “a humorous video, phrase, illustration, or other symbol or depiction that is suddenly and widely spread by and mimicked or parodied on the Internet.”[2] Nowadays, a meme is typically a digital version of what we formerly called a poster or graphic that contains a caption of some sort—often a quotation attributed to a person whose image is a featured part of the graphic.

Meme mocking memesBut note: the thing that makes a meme a true meme, by definition, is that it is rapidly and widely shared via social media (like Facebook) on the Internet. A photo with a caption or quote on it posted on Facebook is not a “meme”—unless it catches fire and goes viral, circling the globe faster than Superman. Otherwise (sorry to break the news), it’s just a picture with writing on it.

Another thing about memes: We need to take them with a grain of salt. More distortions, half-truths, and outright lies are spread by memes on social media today than we can imagine. Don’t be quick to share something that can possibly damage another’s reputation—even if you verify its accuracy.


[1] A neologism (nee-ol-ə-jiz-əm) is a newly coined word or expression.

[2] Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016), 588.


© 2016 by Dean Christensen.

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Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, voiceover guy, baseball bug, logophile, classical music afficionado, classic rock 'n' roll lover, classic-movie buff, bibliophile, former this, used to be that, and future who knows what. Every day is an adventure in learning.

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