I’m a “word” person. I collect them, list and hoard them in my notebooks, research them, savor them, attempt to alchemize them into speech acts as well as into poems and other texts. I have dictionaries in every room of my house as well as in my office; I own two thesauruses – the old kind grouped by theme (did you know that Roget’s Thesaurus begins with the word “existence” and ends with “temple”?). Some of my lexical tomes are so well-worn that whole chunks of them have broken away from their bindings.
Each word is a poem unto itself: sonic, historied, paradoxical, manifold and mysterious.
One of the first things I like to do when I encounter a word, then, especially one that is new to me, or unusual, is to enter it blindly – that is, without looking up its denotation, connotations, etymology. I say the word out loud, imagining various ways it might be pronounced, paying attention to what those sounds evoke.
“Meme” is particularly suggestive when approached this way. It evokes, on a very basic level, among the first – if not the first – sounds humans make as infants, the nuzzling, hungry, slaked mmm-mmmm of suckling (the mouth as primal mind, and the first language for mammals: milk).
With its emphatic spondee of repeated sounds (“me! me!,”) the word also suggests an obsessive italicization of the self that might be interpreted as desperate (notice me! pay attention to me!) or boldly assertive (I’m me, I’m the bomb, it’s all about me).
The word “meme” is actually a neologism (a newly coined word), conceived by Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” (1976), as a way of appropriating and drawing parallels with evolutionary paradigms (thus the connection between “meme” and “gene”) to understand the ways in which ideas and cultural phenomena – slogans, fashion trends, dance crazes, music – replicate and spread among human communities. The word owes to the Greek mimeme (“imitated thing”), and earlier iterations of Dawkins’s ideas about the transmission of cultural material can be found in Richard Semon’s “Die Mneme” (1904) and Maurice Maeterlinck’s “The Life of the White Ant” (1926).
Contemporary readers probably think of “memes” as a relatively new affair, heavily associated with the internet – quirky and witty images (fist-pumping cats, various children performing “The Floss”) or catch phrases (“I Can Has Cheeseburger”) that get picked up, tweaked, replicated and disseminated virally on Facebook walls or tweeted with a velocity that often causes them to fall out of favor quickly and expire, once their “secret handshake” novelty has been exhausted or has worn off.