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Friday, September 19, 2008

The "Meme" Meme

I can't figure out any use for the word "meme" other than to lend a spurious air of intellectual "gravitas" to something that might otherwise seem commonplace. For instance, take:
'Rickrolling is an Internet meme involving the music video for the 1987 Rick Astley song "Never Gonna Give You Up".'

What does "meme" do in that sentence that could not be better done by:
'Rickrolling is an Internet fad involving the music video for the 1987 Rick Astley song "Never Gonna Give You Up"'?

In fact, 'fad' would be far better! But if you write 'meme', it shows that you are 'up' on current pseudo-intellectual lingo.

13 comments:

  1. I normally criticize this kind of thing too, but I don't see the problem here. "Meme" is more general than "fad", since the latter expresses the speaker's judgment that it will be temporary, or at least connotes it. The term "meme" would also include Christianity, but I doubt anyone would call a 2,000 year old belief system a "fad".

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  2. Yeah, when you want to use it in the broader sense, we have a somewhat obscure word called "idea" that can be used.

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  3. Yes, yes, there might be cases where "Idea" wouldn't quite suit the bill -- but here's a challenge: write any sentence using 'meme' that I can't re-word to be clearer and more precise without using it.

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  4. That's too strict of a standard. If "meme" is a superset term[1] , which includes other terms, and the superset has interesting properties, it may still make sense to use the superset term, if you want to call attention to those properties. The Wikipedia author, I think, is doing so here to call attention to the Rickroll's skill at "replicating".

    And again, let me sympathize with your dislike of faddish terms -- I've criticized "price point" the same way, since "price" does just fine, and people usually aren't drawing on the economic theory behind price points.

    [1] examples:

    "significant other": refers to boyfriend, girlfriend, fiance, fiancee, husband, wife

    "intellectual property": refers to patent, copyright, and trademark

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  5. I disagree as well, Gene. The word meme is probably over used, but there is a more "objective", detached sense to meme that is not as immediately evident with idea. It seems, at least subjectively to me that meme conveys the meaning of an idea with a life of it's own, not a mere idea, which may be lifeless and/or trivial. Meme's are always infectious to some degree, idea's not necessarily so. Or at least that's the way I would view it.

    By the way, to my knowledge I have never used the word meme except in meta-discussions.

    The word plethora, however, is a decent example in my opinion of a totally useless word. This may be a good topic after all.

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  6. So what's the category that 'meme' refers to?

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  7. "That's too strict of a standard."

    Oh, and your superset criterion does not render this standard "too strict" at all -- presumably, if the superset has some actually important characteristics, there are sentences you could write using the name of the superset that could not be re-written better using some other word.

    BUt I've met my own challenge, btw: "'Memes' is a faddish word positing phony biological analogies between genes and ideas" -- I could not replace 'memes' in that sentence without damage!

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  8. Anonymous12:12 PM

    I like this idea. I will now link here and refer to the idea as the meme meme meme.

    -Steve Johnson

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  9. It is a linguistic truism that a proposition P(x) about some element of a language does not extend to hypostasis; that is, P(x) does not imply P("x"). Collie is a kind of tetrapod, but "collie" has no legs.

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