Meme - Word of the Week

Definition - Meme:

1: An idea, behavior or trend that spreads from person to person (pronounced "meem")


"Bart Simpson's slang has become a meme that spread through an entire generation."

The word "meme" was invented by British scientist Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene.  By definition meme was originally used to mean an idea or type of behavior that gets passed from person to person, like a fashion trend, a turn of phrase, or a slang word.  Because people tend to copy behavior from others, memes which are "good at getting copied" can spread quickly, all around the world.

Any fashion, haircut, joke, way of speaking or even a style of music can turn into a meme. However, unlike genes, which copy themselves perfectly, memes tend to change over time, coming into and falling out of fashion.

An awful example of a meme from fashion is black and white camouflage clothing, which was made popular in the early 1990s by design houses like Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton. This meme spread through most Western countries for several years, dying down towards the end of the 1990s, and then "coming back" in the mid 2000s.

Image by Aleighn

Some good examples in language are the slang words used by Bart Simpson, many of which were "invented" by the creators of The Simpsons.  Words like "cool" and "rad" were not widely used to mean "good" or "fashionable" until used in the cartoon, but these meanings have since become widely used. This is because people copied them and used them in everyday conversation.

Other words from The Simpsons, like "embiggen" and "cromulant" were invented entirely by the show's creators.  Invented words are called neologisms.

Being familiar with popular memes is a lot like understanding idioms in English - they can help you to get jokes shared by native English speakers, or to understand a phrase, sentence or behavior that might not make sense at first.

All of Kaplan's English Courses help you to learn English words and phrases that can be used in daily interactions with native speakers. If you really want to learn English quickly, why not check out one of our Intensive English courses?

Internet Memes

An internet meme is a joke, idea or a series of images or videos based on an original image, video or phenomenon that went "viral" - meaning it was shared by millions of people.  Often, jokes based on the original won't make sense unless you have seen the original video or image, or at least know about it.

If you see an image or a video that you don't understand, try checking out, which is a database of most known memes.  If you don't get a joke on the internet or among English speakers talking about something they saw online, this is a good place to look!

What's your favorite internet meme?

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