Meme, the newest Norwegian word?

Words about words

The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins

Book cover of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, Oxford, Oxford University Press (1976), 224 pages, ISBN 0-19-857519-X.

M. MICHAEL BRADY
Asker, Norway

The word meme occurs eight times in a recent dark humor essay on the coronavirus in the Norwegian cultural weekly Morgenbladet, which suggests that it’s an established term in the lingo of Norwegian journalism. Yet meme is not in customary Norwegian desk references, such as Norsk Ordbok (Norwegian Dictionary) and Norsk Etymologisk Ordbok (Norwegian Etymological Dictionary).

This disparity has arisen because meme is a new, if not the newest word in Norwegian. Meme is a loanword from English, in which it’s relatively new, having been coined by British evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins (born 1941). In his book The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins popularized the gene-centered view of evolution that is independent of any supernatural creator.

In chapter 11 of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins wrote:

“The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme? It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’ Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”

This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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