What the Frack Does Meme Mean?

Writers are always trying to push the envelope of the languages in which they write. Shakespeare was a famous and shameless creator of new words, which were often so easily understood from the context in which they were used that they passed effortlessly into the language. Shakespeare Online lists 109 of the more famous ones, some of which are quite surprisingly modern, which makes sense since Shakespeare virtually invented modern English. James Joyce, the Irish author famous for Ulysses, was also famous for coining new words and, in fact, managed to create a whole new language in Finnegans Wake composed of a dozen European languages. (Joyce supported himself as a Berlitz language instructor.)

Editorial Responsibility

Editors, on the other hand (present company included), are charged with the task of protecting their languages from corruption, so that they remain understandable for subsequent generations. The French have an actual government agency charged with the responsibility for protecting their language from the insinuation of words and phrases from other languages into their mother tongue, but English is much less chauvinistic and more eclectic, shamelessly adopting all the best words from around the world.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that there are only two ways that languages develop, by accretion – borrowing whole words from other languages – and by invention, fabricating words from pieces of words from other languages. English itself is a case in point.  The language originated from the merger of two languages spoken by closely related Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, when the two tribes met in England, and gradually accreted its current depth and breadth through a merger with Latin speaking remnants of the Roman occupation, along with the assimilation of French after the Norman conquest in the 11th century.

As the language continued to absorb new words through British conquests around the world, notably from North American natives, the Indian subcontinent and China, English eventually became the first truly global  lingua Franca. (The term lingua Franca itself refers to a mixture of Italian with French, Greek, Arabic, and Spanish, once widely spoken in the Middle East.)

Why Memes Are Not Good Words

Editors must constantly guard against the interpolation of garbage words into their languages, with meme being currently one of the worst offenders among the breed.  A garbage word is any word that doesn’t clearly and concisely express its meaning without further explanation. In other words, a garbage word is a word that requires further explanation before you can understand the context in which it is being used.

With many, if not most, garbage words, it is hard to figure out who to blame for its existence but, in this case, we know exactly whom to blame:  Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, virtually (another garbage word, by the way, that made the grade and become part of the common parlance) invented the field of evolutionary biology, and coined the word meme as the cultural equivalent of a gene in biology.

Genes and Memes

Genes are the instructions that enable living organizations to replicate themselves by using the information stored in the gene to direct the fabrication of the molecules that become part of the living organism. Simple enough.  The basic building block of all living things.

A meme, however, is supposedly the basic building block for intellectual activity, the formulation and transmission of ideas, beliefs, and other cultural phenomena.  Not so simple, because a meme can be almost anything, a musical melody, a catchphrase, or an entire belief system, like Christianity, although Dawkins might balk at that comparison. Nevertheless, beliefs and practices followed by Christians on the basis of their upbringing and education would be a good example of the actions of a meme….if there ever were any such things.

There is, however, no such thing as a meme, despite the efforts of English psychologist Nicholas Humphrey to encourage the belief that memes are actual living organisms rather than simply metaphorical constructs.  Thus, we have an evolutionary biologist suggesting that ideas have an organic characteristics, and a psychologist claiming that memes are real things that can be identified and studied abstractly, in a classic case of role reversal.

Alternative Memes

The study of memes has been hampered by the fact that Dawkins himself no longer seems certain about what a meme is, if it is anything at all. Thesaurus.Com  has come to the rescue, with a succinct definition of a meme as “a cultural item repeatedly transmitted,” but that definition also begs the question because it is not exactly clear what an “item” is in this context, nor is “transmitted” an unambiguous behavior. Thesaurus amplifies its definition with a number of synonyms, including buzzword, concept, fad, idea, meteor (we didn’t get that one either), trend, craze, fashion, kick and vogue.

Okay, then, a meme could be a buzzword, something repeated so often that it has become accepted to mean something other than what it says, a concept that can be conveyed through language, a fad that is conveyed by imitative behavior, an idea, which something you get before you have a concept, a trend, which is an habitual behavior embraced by a discrete group of people, a craze, which is an habitual behavior embraced by an amorphous group of people, a kick which is something you get when you write an article like this, or something you get out of the reaction to something you have said or done, or something that is in vogue, vogue being one of those words that always requires a modifier.  Let’s leave meteor out of it, thank you.

The Paradigm Solution

None of these words, however, quite covers what meme is supposed to mean, but paradigm does.  A paradigm, for those of you who slept through semantics, is a model or an example of something, often expressed in the form of a pattern. More specifically, in linguistic terms, a paradigm is a set of mutually inclusive, exclusive or inclusive and exclusive choices that create the guideline for a subsequent action or behavior. (Some people did not sleep through semantics.)

So, then, a paradigm is an intellectual construct that guides future behavior, exactly as genes guide the future behavior of an organism in terms of creating new parts of itself. In other words, a paradigm is a meme, except that just about everyone understands the meaning of a paradigm from the context in which the word is used, but no one, not even (by his own admission) the person who coined the term, appears able to understand at a glance what meme means.

“Meme” belongs to a small group of words that just should not exist, a group that includes “heuristic” which can only be explained by referring to itself at some point in the definition.  (Heuristic reasoning is an intellectual process in which conclusions are reached on the basis of inadequate or incomplete information, also known as a hunch, or simply guessing, both of which are examples of heurism, hence the circularity.) Unlike meme, however, once heuristic is understood, it is always understood in the same manner, regardless of context, while, with meme, you are never exactly sure what the word refers to since it is so definitively indistinct.  It does not belong in polite conversation, nor should it appear in news articles.

And now, about  the phrase “epic fail…..”

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