Putting ‘Meme’ Up for ‘Semantic Dissection’

‘Meme,’ coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, has been used in Times articles about genes, stocks and of course, Bernie Sanders.

Credit...June Shin

In Word Through The Times, we trace how one word or phrase has changed throughout the history of the newspaper.

“Meme” is often considered an internet-age term, but it originated earlier. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is credited with coining the word in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins was looking for a way to describe the spread of ideas and information that make up “the soup of human culture,” he wrote. To create “meme,” Dawkins shortened the Greek word “mimeme,” which means to mimic or imitate, modeling his new word on “gene.”

It took some time before the term caught on in popular use. One of the earliest Times articles that used meme (not to be confused with the French “même,” which means “same”) was published in 1995. Titled “Meme’s the Word,” the article pointed to Dawkins and noted the word’s growing use in books and on the internet. “Meme. Pronounced meem,” the article’s author wrote. “Think of it as a thought virus or the cultural equivalent of a gene, a phrase, a way of thinking.”

A 1999 Times review of the book “The Meme Machine” by Susan Blackmore, for which Dawkins wrote the foreword, said the idea of the meme was a useful way to understand an increasingly media-saturated world. A column in 1996 defined memes as “ideas that alter the ways in which we think.” A 1998 article by the cultural critic Edward Rothstein provided examples of memes that had “recently established themselves in American culture,” such as “the soundtrack of ‘Titanic,’” “large-soled sneakers” and “jokes about White House interns.”

In 2021, The Times wrote about the popular meme of Senator Bernie Sanders sitting in a folding chair at President Biden’s inauguration. Wearing knitted mittens, Mr. Sanders was “the star of the day’s biggest meme by doing nothing but sitting and crossing his arms.”

The Times has since covered memes by following the popularity of digital trends like cryptocurrencies and TikTok. In 2022, “meme” was used in Times articles about the so-called meme stocks, stocks, such as that of GameStop, that attract individual investors who band together on the internet.

A 2022 article in Gameplay, The Times’s puzzle section, examined the word’s evolution, cultural context and usage in Times crosswords. The article’s author, Alexis Benveniste, wrote, “The word ‘meme’ has been used in the New York Times Crossword 60 times since the puzzle’s inception in the 1940s, according to XWordInfo.” She also shared that ‘meme’ first appeared in the Crossword in 1953 with the clue “Same: French.” On Dec. 24, 2021, it was clued with “Something that gets passed around a lot.”

A 2021 Styles article was rather meta. The article acknowledged, as its headline stated, “The Timesian Urge to Explain a Meme” and how journalists tend to subject memes to “semantic dissection.” Sound familiar?