Devolution of the Word “Meme”

By Gene Wilburn

Photo by Peter Lam CH on Unsplash

Sure, you know what a meme is. It’s a picture with words, usually humorous, sometimes acerbic. You see dozens of them each day if you’re on social media. You probably share really funny ones with friends. And, as you’ve seen, there are hundreds of cat memes floating around the Internet.

But did you know that the word meme has strayed from its intended meaning?

Meme is not an old word. It is a word coined by Richard Dawkins in 1975 in his landmark book on biology, The Selfish Gene. It is a foreshortening of the Greek word mimēma ‘that which is imitated.’ It was intended to signify ideas that spread through a population in the manner of a gene, though faster.

Think of ideas that have swept through populations: philosophical or religious beliefs, the idea of a renaissance, the concept of an age of reason, to highlight a few. On the societal side, think of political phrases like “lock her up” and “#metoo” that have spread far and wide.

In an interview with Newsbeat, Dawkins admitted that “I’m not going to use the term internet meme to refer to a picture with writing on it.” For Dawkins, memes are “ideas that spread from brain to brain — a bit like genes, they are replicated many times.”

And so it is that while gaining a popular new word for pictures with captions (now its primary meaning in dictionaries), we’ve mostly lost an intellectually useful word to explain how ideas spread.

One thing linguists always tell us: language is in a continual state of change. Words change meaning, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. It’s the way language works. We may rue the change in the meaning of meme but it’s now a done deal.

As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. often wrote, “And so it goes.”

Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist.

Dictionaries – A Writer’s Best Friends

by Gene Wilburn

Webster’s New World Dictionary. Photo by the author.

Words are … the most powerful drug used by mankind ― Rudyard Kipling

Words are the core stuff of writing―its quirks, quarks, roots, and branches. To form sentences and paragraphs, we use words. To express ideas, thoughts, plots, characters, dialogue, or scenes, we use carefully crafted combinations of words. The richer our vocabulary, the more precise and elegant we can be, not to impress the reader, but to seek le mot juste, the perfect word or words to describe or express something.

As a self-appointed dictionary evangelist, I believe all writers should love and use dictionaries. They’re the gateway into our language’s word horde, and English has the largest word horde of any language as measured by the number of entries in a dictionary — over a million words and counting.

Dictionaries provide not only the correct spelling of a word (including variant spellings), but also the definitions of words and the nuances of distinction between a word and a word with a similar, but not exact, meaning. Today’s online dictionaries even come with an audible pronunciation guide, to enable you to pronounce the word correctly in speech.

Selecting a Desktop English Dictionary

If you don’t already have a preference in dictionaries, and would like a print dictionary to keep on your desk, any of the so-called college desk dictionaries will provide you with an excellent companion and guide. Top Choices for American English include:

These dictionaries not only provide spelling, pronunciation, and syllabification, they define words, and give a bit of the word’s history, or etymology. These are among the most handy dictionaries available.

Canadian writers might also want to supplement one of the above with a paperback copy of the Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English to check on Canadian spelling preferences for Canadian publications, such as colour instead of color and other words with -our spelling, and doubled consonants in words such as counselling.

Some of these dictionaries are also available in ebook format or as an app for phone or tablet. My favorite dictionary app for American English is provided by the august Merriam-Webster company, publisher of the definitive Third International as well as smaller dictionaries. On my iPad, I use the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus app almost daily and consider it the best dictionary app I’ve used. It can be obtained from the app store for your iOS or Android device.

Online Dictionaries

If you simply want to quickly check the spelling of a word, Google (or your search engine of choice) is your friend. A quick check on Google will usually zero in on the spelling you want, even if you don’t spell it totally correctly.

Beyond Google, there are free online dictionaries that might suit your needs as well as a desk dictionary. Here are some that you might want to bookmark:

Urban Dictionary

This site is a terrific aid to writers writing contemporary fiction and who want to include some of the latest in colloquial and slang terms and expressions. It’s kept very up to date on the latest words, some of which are at least semi-vulgar. You know. The way people actually talk. These recent words can add spice or variety to your character’s dialogue. E.g., Cape: “When someone is protecting, covering for or being a ‘hero’ for another person — ‘Lisa always gotta cape for Jay when he gets caught leaving early’.”

Oxford English Dictionary

This is the most authoritative dictionary of the English language. It is famous for its etymologies and its historical citations that give examples, with dates, of how a word has been used in written English, from earliest recorded history of the language. The creation of the dictionary is the stuff of legend. Here’s a primer on the subject.

Bonus for fiction readers: Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams. A delightful novel about a young girl who grows up to womanhood working in the Scriptorium where the Oxford English Dictionary was created.

The downside of the online OED is that it requires a hefty annual subscription. However, some public library systems and colleges subscribe for the benefit of patrons and you may be able to access the dictionary for free through your library.

Merriam-Webster Online

Simply one of the best. The website offers both dictionary and thesaurus listings from its carefully curated database. It seems on a par with the desk version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. Note that it does display ads when using it for free.

Cambridge Dictionary Online

The Cambridge dictionaries are another of the fine set of professionally created dictionaries available online. You can toggle it to either US or UK English, making it especially handy for Canadian writers. It too contains ads.


Wiktionary is a popular site for looking up words. It has been created in the same manner as Wikipedia, by volunteers. It presents a less attractive interface than the previous dictionaries but it offers, according to its opening page, over a million words in English. It may be one of the best places to find the definition of technical words and terms. It provides some etymologies as well and it’s totally free, with no ads.

Online Etymology Dictionary

Here’s a site to bookmark by word lovers who are interested in the history of the words we speak and write. As it says on its opening page: “This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English. Etymologies are not definitions; they’re explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago.” Sheer fun and delight.

Word of the Day

An excellent way of increasing your awareness of words and their subtleties is to subscribe to the “Word of the Day” offerings from several of the dictionary companies. Each day in your email inbox you will find a word that is examined and explained, including its history of how it evolved into today’s meaning.

The sites that offer this list it on their front web page. I must admit I have a favorite: Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. It even has a companion podcast that is available from Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify Podcasts. Merrriam-Webster also offers a more general podcast called Word Matters. It describes itself this way: “Word Matters is a show for readers, writers, and anyone who ever loved their English class. Join Merriam-Webster editors as they challenge supposed grammar rules, reveal the surprising origins behind words, tackle common questions, and generally geek out about the beautiful nightmare that is language.”

What could be more fun than geeking out on words? Well, okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but as a writer our stock of words and our intimate knowledge of them is one of our best assets.

Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT professional. He has a B.A. and M.A. in English with a specialty in the history of the English language.

F. Scott Fitzgerald vs. S.S. Van Dine: A Vocabulary Bakeoff

An Exploration in Natural Language Processing

By Gene Wilburn

Image for post
F. Scott Fitzgerald / “S.S. Van Dine”

Just as I began learning basic techniques for natural language processing (sometimes called “computational linguistics”) in the Python programming language, I read that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby had been released into the public domain. As an English major (B.A., M.A.) who had pivoted into a career in IT, this attracted me like a folksinger to a new acoustic guitar. I knew I had to try out my new licks on Gatsby, so I downloaded the plain text version of the novel from Project Gutenberg.

As is the case with most lit majors, I’m a word addict, so I thought I’d pull out some of Fitzgerald’s vocabulary to see if it was in any way exceptional — meaning the words he used, not the deft way he put them together in his classic American novel. This was not intended as a form of literary criticism. It’s more of a word-watcher’s curiosity about how a gifted writer used his word hoard.

By extracting all the individual words from the plain text form of the novel, then putting it through a stop list of words like a, an, and, or, but, the, etc., I had a working list of relevant words. Using the resources of the excellent NLTK (natural language toolkit) module (NLTK Book), I was able to prepare a frequency distribution list that could be used to highlight the most frequently used words as well as those used only once or a few times.

It turned out that words Fitzgerald used most were not particularly interesting or enlightening. Examining the words used 50 or more times one sees common words like I, she, he, said, Gatsby, Tom, Daisy, you, house, car, get, and something. Nothing particularly inspiring.

It then occurred to me that it might be much more interesting to look at Fitzgerald’s least used words, hoping to find some fancier words he used only occasionally. In addition to its .FreqDist() method, NLTK also has a method called .hapaxes(). This derives from the Greek expression Hapax legomenon meaning, literally, “something said only once.” The method, appropriately, flags all words used only once in the novel.

This immediately produced more interesting results, as varied as adventitious, amorphous, aquaplanes, vestibules, and wall-scaling, along with common words used only once. By experimenting with selecting various degrees of frequency, I found that the most interesting all-around list was obtained by including all words used three times or fewer.

Although this was interesting, it seemed to me that it would be doubly interesting to a word hound to compare The Great Gatsby with another novel of the same period. I thought of Hemingway, since Fitzgerald and Hemingway were friends, but Hemingway’s use of simple vocabulary makes him less interesting in terms of the actual words he employed.

Gatsby was published in 1925. By coincidence I had just finished reading a 1926 murder mystery novel called The Benson Murder Case, by S.S. Van Dine, the pseudonym for American art critic and writer Willard Huntington Wright, an erudite writer whose detective, Philo Vance, was at one time highly popular with readers and who was featured in several Hollywood films. Amateur detective Vance, a kind of American version of the British sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, was played in films by actors William Powell (before his Nick Charles period), Basil Rathbone, and Edmund Lowe (Wikipedia, “S.S. Van Dine”). Nick Caraway rubbed shoulders with the rich. Vance was a member of rich NewYork society, and an art collector, and, as such, had a remarkably sophisticated, at times foppish, vocabulary. The novel sent me to the dictionary several times to look up new words.

I purchased an Epub edition of S.S. VAN DINE Premier Collection: Thriller Classics, Murder Mysteries, Detective Tales & More and extracted the text of The Benson Murder Case and put it through the same lexical procedures as Gatsby, likewise limiting the word list to words used three times or fewer. I then converted all the words to lower case, alphabetized both lists, and filtered the two lists together using a Unix/Linux word utility called comm. What it did was put the results in three columns. Words used only by Fitzgerald, words used only by Van Dine, and words used by both. The full list is here.

I then imported the list into Google Docs and exported it as an Epub file that I loaded into Apple Books on my iPad. This allowed me to do a leisurely read through the list and highlight words from each author that struck me as being “interesting” and at least slightly out of the ordinary. When I had finished scanning, I manually copied the results for each author into the listings below:

Great Gatsby (1925)

abortive, adventitious, aluminium, amorphous, aquaplanes, araby, asunder, beluga, cahoots, caravansary, caterwauling, chartreuse, coney, convivial, crêpe-de-chine, debauchee, demoniac, dilatory, distraught, divot, dog-days, duckweed, echolalia, ectoplasm, euphemisms, expostulation, fishguards, flounced, foxtrot, fractiousness, grail, harlequin, holocaust, hornbeams, hors-d’oeuvre, humidor, inconsequence, inessential, jonquils, juxtaposition, knickerbockers, lustreless, meretricious, nonolfactory, obstetrical, pasquinade, petrol-pumps, plagiaristic, platonic, pneumatic, portentous, postern, prig, probity, rot-gut, rotogravure, sea-change, sheik, somnambulatory, staid, substantiality, subterfuges, teutonic, vestibule, wall-scaling, whitebait

Benson Murder Case (1926)

a-flutter, a-kimbo, acerbities, adipose, amasis, animadversions, approbation, aquiline, argot, arrentine, astigmatic, badinage, ballyrag, bezique, bisonic, brachycephalic, bunjinga, burglarious, casuistic, champêtre, chef-d’œuvre, cinquecento, cloisonné, confab, contretemps, craniological, darwinian, davenport, deltoids, derring-do, déshabillé, diatonic, discommode, disharmonious, dissolution, dolichocephalic, dulcet, dyspnœa, ebullition, embayed, emulsification, endocrines, factitious, factotum, flâneur, flummery, forensic, garrulous, gewgaws, halcyon, hauteur, hedonist, helixometer, hirsute, mpecunious, imputation, inamorato, infinitesimal, ingress, inspissated, joss-sticks, juxtaposition, lambrequin, leptorhine, lèse-majesté, lineaments, loquacious, lugubriously, mandragora, mêlée, mellifluously, mock-turtle, modish, moue, myrmidons, obduracy, orthognathous, oubliettes, palaver, peccadilloes, perfeccionados, perspicacious, phrenologist, platitudinarian, plebeian, polychrome, popinjay, prognathous, protasis, puerility, quavering, quixotic, rapprochement, ratiocination, redolent, remonstrances, repine, reproche, rubicund, sabreur, sardonic, sententiously, sequester, smouldering, sobriquet, soirée, somnolently, soupçon, stertorous, suave, sybarite, sycophant, syllogism, tenter-hooks, tête-à-tête, teutonic, tonneau, totemistic, triptych, truculent, tutelary, twitted, ventral, vestibule, viscid, vitiated, vituperation, vortices, what-for, whirlin’-dervish

There are a couple of things one might conclude from comparing the lists. The first is that F. Scott Fitzgerald did not use an especially challenging vocabulary for The Great Gatsby. This makes the novel suitable for readers of younger ages, say high school or first-year university students. The second is that you don’t need fancy words to create a masterpiece. Gatsby has stood the test of time.

S.S. Van Dine, though once highly popular, has faded into relative obscurity. Part of that may be attributed to his more challenging vocabulary and part to the writing itself, which is slow-paced for a detective novel.

Those of us who are addicted to detective fiction are used to authors with large vocabularies and, in fact, if a work of detective fiction doesn’t offer some word challenges, it’s disappointing to the reader.

The bottom line: S.S. Van Dine walks away with the prize for most interesting vocabulary, while F. Scott Fitzgerald walks away with a literary masterpiece. A generous reader can enjoy both.

English Usage: The Science “So…” and the British “Different to…”

While listening to science podcasts such as Science Weekly, Science Friday, and Science Times, I began to notice a speech pattern that must pervade the science community: the use of “So …” to introduce remarks.

“So what they discovered is that …”
“So they fed mice a diet of …”
“So when the amygdala shows up on brain scans …”

I don’t hear this introductory word used by people being interviewed in non-science fields. If they use a word at all, it’s usually “well …”

I began listening for this diagnostic word indicating a bit of science is to follow and noticed it on TV science shows as well when scientists were being interviewed. I don’t know if this usage phenomenon has been widely identified.

The other expression to catch my ear during podcasts and interviews relates not simply to scientists, but to most British and Australian speakers. In North America we tend to vacillate between two forms of the comparative: “different than” and “different from.” I remember my grade school grammar teacher telling us that “different from” was the preferred usage, though I hear “different than” more frequently.

When listening to British speakers I hear an altogether different expression: “different to.”

“Middle English is different to Old English in the use of …”
“The highlands are different to the lowlands because …”
“Stage acting is different to movie acting.”

I rather like the expression, though I wouldn’t use it myself. It sounds foreign to my North American ear. I’m still firmly imprinted in the “different from” camp.