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 (pronounced meem), a word that first appeared in the 1970s, is derived from the Greek miméme (“same, alike”). It is defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person in a culture.”[1] Meme remained a fairly obscure word until fairly recently, 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] In popular culture today, however, the scope of its definition has been watered down and stretched thin to mean a digital version of what we used to call a poster or graphic with a caption, 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. Technically, a photo with a caption or quote on it that you post on FB or Instagram is not a meme at all—unless it catches fire and goes viral, circling the globe faster than Superman. Otherwise (sorry to break the news), it’s just an image 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 can verify its accuracy.


[1] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh ed.

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


© 2019 by Dean Christensen. (All rights reserved.)

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Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, baseball bug, word lover, book hound, guitar picker, classical music aficionado, classic rock 'n' roll and movie buff, sinner, saint, former this, used-to-be that, and future who-knows-what. Every day is an adventure in learning how to make the world a better place--grammatically, anyway.

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