#WordUse Series:
You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

I admit I’m sometimes out of the loop. (Or behind the curve. Or whatever.) I don’t watch television and it’s only me up here in the swanky second-floor office in the pink house with the blue door, so whole fads pass me by. Whole memes pass me by.

But I am up on my word usage, kids. And Your Editor would like you to start using the word meme correctly. Let’s review. This is the definition of meme:

meme noun \ˈmēm\
plural -s
: an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture
Origin of MEME
alteration of mimeme, from mim- (as in mimesis) + -eme
First Known Use: 1976

So just because you add some words to a photograph—creating what I’ll call a “digital poster with a pithy saying”—and post it on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest, that isn’t a meme.

Here’s what Wikipedia says: “An Internet meme is an idea, style or action which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet, as with imitating the concept. Some notable examples include: posting a photo of people in public places lying down planking, or uploading a short video of people dancing to the Harlem Shake.” (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, it’s the concept, not the thing. I just saw a blog post titled “A Collection of Memes for Writers”—and it was a dozen “digital posters with pithy sayings.” The blogger could have typed those same quotes into a bullet list—the effect would have been the same. But because someone drew a box around each quote and changed the font to Comic Sans, did that make it a meme?

No. It did not.*

A viral photograph isn’t a meme either. The Russian athletes kissing, Jennifer Lawrence tripping on her way to accept an Academy Award—those are just photographs that got shared around a lot. That photo of Scarlett Johansson falling down is just a photo too—until someone Photoshops Scarlett onto the back of a dolphin or playing bongo drums on the sidewalk. Now it’s become a meme.

Similarly, a photobomb is just a photograph with someone or something unexpected in it, like the gentleman who realized too late he’d walked into a photo of a romantic (?) marriage proposal at Disney World. It becomes a meme when the bomber shows up in iconic photos such as Cassius Clay standing over Sonny Liston in that round one knockout in 1965 or the Beatles in the Abbey Road pedestrian crossing in 1969.

video of a baby polar bear taking its first steps at the Toronto Zoo is delightful, I must say. But in spite of what the folks at Know Your Meme think, this is just a viral video. However, when people all over the world create dialogue for a snippet of video—say, a four-minute scene from the movie Downfall, a 2004 German war film starring Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler, in which Hitler learns he’s lost his bid for, you know, world domination—you have the Hitler Reacts meme. (For example: Hitler learns of the Twitter outage, Hitler reacts to SOPA, Hitler finds out about Disney buying Star Wars, and so on.)

Not all memes are rooted in humor. A recent (2013) Facebook meme asks friends to make a list of ten books “that have stayed with you.” (These sorts of memes don’t ever seem to be written by folks who are particularly—ahem—good writers. “Stayed with you”? That’s the best we could do to articulate the notion that reading a book can profoundly affect one’s worldview?) And then there’s this. (Who knew?)

Timeliness plays a part too. Hitler Reacts is hilarious because each iteration is of the moment (and quickly becomes dated, such as Hitler reacting to Hillary Clinton’s withdrawal from the 2008 presidential race). The best memes often are, which is why they have such staying power: they’re new over and over. In the 2001 film Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir (played by Sean Bean), notes the task at hand is a difficult one, saying, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” Thus we have the One Does Not Simply meme, which seems to renew itself with every season and news cycle.

One Does Not Simply tends to take the form of a photograph—a rugged Sean Bean with his hand held just so—with (as noted above) a pithy saying attached to it. But the meme itself is the concept of an advice-giving Boromir. Similarly, all I have to do is say Grumpy Cat and you know what I mean. The concept of Grumpy Cat—annoyed with the world—is a meme.

But any old photo with some pithy words on it … that’s not a meme. Got it?

It is not, however, a meme in and of itself. (Thank you, Tommy Greer.)

It is not, however, a meme in and of itself. (Thank you, Tommy Greer.)

That is all. :)

* ANOTHER UPDATE: Since I published this article three and a half years ago, the transformation of the meaning of this word is just about complete. Folks pretty much use it to mean a photo with words on it. I blame politics.

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.

Tweet: Your Editor would like you to start using the word meme correctly. Let’s review.
Tweet: That baby polar bear is just a viral video. But “Hitler Reacts”? That’s a meme.
Tweet: Just because you add words to a photograph & post it on Facebook, it isn’t a meme.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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