I’m a sucker for memes. This might sound odd to anyone unfamiliar with meme theory, called memetics, but anyone who has been around me in the last few months has certainly received an earful on this tantalizing topic.
What is a meme, you ask? Susan Blackmore, the author of “The Meme Machine,” explains: “When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This ‘something’ can then be passed on again, and again and again, and so take on a life of its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behavior, a piece of information…but if we are going to study it we need to give it a name. Fortunately, there is a name. It is the ‘meme.’”
The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene.” Memes are superficially related to genes in that they are self-replicators. Essentially, memes are like cultural genes. Large groups of them are referred to as memeplexes. Memetics is still a fairly embryonic theory by scientific standards. But, like I said, it’s a tantalizing one that anyone can grasp by simply paying attention to daily life.
Here are a few examples of well-known memes: baseball caps worn backwards; the word “meme”; apparitions of the Virgin Mary; shoe-throwing as political dissent; little green men; Obama-as-Hitler; Obama-as-Spock; designer keffiahs (emblematic scarves popularized by Yasser Arafat); circumcision; cakes with cherries on top.
I remember noticing, in the mid-1990s, memetics in action (though I didn’t think of it in those terms). I was living in New York, which is a great meme-factory. I had been listening to Lenny Bruce’s performances from the ’50s and I was hooked on them. One of the sketches, “Father Flotski’s Triumph,” parodies popular prison-revolt movies of the day. “Dutch” is the gun-crazy criminal who has taken a hostage, and it’s Father Flotski’s job to talk him down. Dutch speaks Neanderthal; his only phrases are amusical variations on the non-word yada: “Yada yada. Yada yada yada, Father!” Mindlessly, I began aping this non-word in company and making friends listen to the Bruce performance. It caught on, at least among those in my circle.
Around the same time, the Seinfeld episode “The Yada Yada” was broadcast. Suddenly everyone was saying “yada yada” at the end of every sentence. “Sharon and I fooled around on her parents’ bed. One thing led to another, and yada yada yada…” That is, you know and I know so why bother with the details?
Yada-yada died out at some point. Today nobody uses it, but there are discussions on Wikipedia over the etymological origins of the term. Did it come from Hebrew via Yiddish? Did it hop the Atlantic from London to New York? Was the term ever recorded before Bruce’s performances?
A more recent meme-word is “truthiness,” thought to have been coined in 2005 by comedian Stephen Colbert, but later traced to prior inclusion in the OED. No matter, however, because Colbert gave the word new life through television. Within a year, “truthiness” had been used in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today… yada yada yada. You get the picture.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that at the time of the “yada yada” craze, I felt that I had actually had a role in the popularizing of this meme (though of course I didn’t think of it as such). It was a coincidence, of course. I had happened on the term thanks to recent reissues on CD of Bruce’s old comedy albums. Is it really so unlikely that a writer for Seinfeld was listening to the same CDs around the same time, and brought one of the gags back to life on America’s most popular television show?
The memes are all around us. We tweet and Facebook ourselves into self-referential tantrums of narcissism. The other night I was having dinner with some friends on Rome’s Via Cavour. “Did you see that article I posted on my Facebook page?” “What about the photos of my trip to Greece?” “Did you read my witty status update?” We soon realized that nobody — not even one’s close friends — reads much of anything anyone posts. Yet we keep posting day in and day out. Blackmore would say we are being manipulated by our memes.
Yesterday, in fact, I was struck by what seemed to me to be a perfect meme just waiting to be coined. Memes, neither good nor bad, just “want” to replicate. Those that replicate and lodge themselves in as many brains as possible are successful memes, and there are probably as many extinct memes as species on this earth. The word I wish to coin is a verb, to quotate. As a working definition, let’s say it means “to make air-quotes with one’s fingers.” In my experience, Italians are always struck by the American tendency to air-quote. I’ve been asked what this is called (in Italian they say “tra virgolette”) but no satisfactory verb exists as far as I know. An example of possible usage:
Larry (making air-quotes): “Our new band is ‘alternative.’”
Marc: “Would you stop quotating, for chrissakes? That went out ten years ago.”
Air-quotes themselves are a rather successful meme, an observation which should require no explanation.
And what about “commenter?” The first time I read this, on Ron Rosenbaum’s blog, I wrote it off as just another ‘knotch’ on his bad spelling belt. Commenter sounds like a deliberate corruption of commentator, coined for purposes of cultural taxonomy. The word probably existed in its own right (though it’s not listed in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate) before blogging made it viral. It has now found a comfortable home, signifying anyone who comments on an online forum.
I plan to push “to quotate” in the following months, and monitor the results. If it ever pops up in a Google search (it doesn’t yet), if ever there is a Wikipedia discussion on the origins of “to quotate,” remember you read it here first. I’ll let you know when I get a call from The Colbert Report.
Published in The American