What Is a Meme?


Let’s face it. If you have to ask what a meme is, you are probably not hip to the generation. Come to think of it, if you use the expression “hip to the generation” you aren’t likely hip to the generation either, so join the party.

Meme is a fairly recent neologism, coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins proposed that culture evolves through distinct cultural units (anything from fashion, to idioms, to songs–any distinct, transferable unit of culture). Biological evolution, he said, is passed on through genes. Cultural evolution, through memes (rhymes with seems).

In recent years meme has developed a popular meaning that is narrower than Dawkins’s original term. Internet memes are transferable units (images, gifs, videos, etc.) that often spread rapidly, or “go viral,” via the web. They can be profound, but memes are much more likely to be simply silly, comic, or sarcastic.

Certain images to which text can be added have come to be called memes as well. In fact, I find that this is precisely what most young people think of when they hear the word meme. Popular memes in this sense include “Grumpy Cat,” “Bad Luck Brian” and “Condescending Wonka.” If these don’t look familiar or if you don’t get it, blame it on your generation:

People add their own captions to these images and post them online. The ones that strike the popular fancy get circulated ad nauseam. But since anyone can create this kind of meme, the great majority are dumb and go nowhere. That raises the question of whether they can be, in fact, considered memes, but that’s a debate I’m not interested in joining.

Maybe you’ve seen them already, but I’ve created my own memes (in this latter sense). As of this writing, they have NOT come anywhere near to viral. 🙂 You may check them out here:


As always, your comments are welcome! Leave yours in the Reply section below.



About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Grammar Nut
    Grammar Nut11-13-2013

    I love memes. Sometimes you have to believe that all English speakers should be commited to an asylum for the verbally insane!

  2. Julie L. Casey
    Julie L. Casey11-13-2013

    I love your memes, Brian! Keep them coming. Thanks for all your great posts!

  3. Rachel C.
    Rachel C.11-13-2013


    Third paragraph, first sentence.

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