The world’s biggest meme is the word “meme” itself

The world’s biggest meme is the word “meme” itself
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The world is really into memes. Reddit has its own meme economy, a community that appraises new formats as if they were stocks. The World Cup has spawned memes mocking the on-field overacting of Neymar, the Brazilian soccer star, in languages from Spanish to German, Dutch, Hungarian, and beyond. The many memes of China poke fun at Xi Jinping and call out out-of-touch celebrities.

How do all of these different people refer to their memes? I asked SwiftKey, a popular smartphone keyboard app acquired by Microsoft a couple years ago, for data on English words commonly used by people typing in languages other than English. I wanted to know which concepts from the English language were proving popular around the world.

The results showed that the word “meme” has followed the concept it describes across the globe, creating a shared vocabulary around a phenomenon that was born on the internet. It has spread like, well, a meme.

The meaning of “meme”

“Meme” has a specific meaning on the internet. Typically, it refers to a kind of joke template: an image accompanied by a standard format for adding text to flesh out the details of that scene. For example, the now-classic scene of an anime character looking directly at a butterfly and asking, “Is this a pigeon?” has been altered in innumerable ways to convey the blind ignorance of not knowing what is right in front of you.

There is a more general definition of “meme,” however, dating back to 1976. The original definition describes it as a container for an idea or a unit of culture, like a fashion trend or blues melody. That container spreads throughout culture through a process of natural selection: Memes that capture a popular feeling or cultural moment get passed on, while those less applicable to contemporary culture die out. If this sounds kind of like how genes work, you’ve got the right idea—the term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins, a man who has been criticized for making everything about genes.

According to that definition, and the data collected by SwiftKey, “meme” is a highly successful meme. But the “culture” in this case is not one linguistic group or nation—it is the entire internet. The data on the most popular English words in other languages shows that the word has proven useful and popular in several languages, having made its way into and across Europe.

Most of the top results from SwiftKey are proper nouns; first names or or the names of popular technologies, like WhatsApp or Skype.

“Meme” is not like those. It is a noun referring to a general concept, like “supermarket” or “jazz.” And it appears on the top-500 list for over half of the twenty languages SwiftKey provided data for, based on user input collected from January to March of this year. “Memes” (plural) was the second-most common English word among users typing on a Spanish-language keyboard. “Meme” was 14th for that group—much higher if we remove a host of first names like “Jenny” and “Nelson”—and right above “wifi.” The word ranks 13th in French, behind “Fred.”

This might seem obvious: We know that memes are popular worldwide. But the fact that the data comes from SwiftKey makes it particularly striking, because it’s based on what people are typing on their smartphone keyboards. On smartphones, language is at its most colloquial and rapid. It’s texting and tweeting. So, in all of the languages where “meme” is prominent, it has become a natural word that people go to without thinking. It’s not a foreign word they look up while drafting a thoughtful email or an essay. It’s part of their linguistic furniture.

The word “meme,” then, is an example of culture being created on a global scale, facilitated by the internet. Sure, it’s still not in the top 500 English words for other languages in the SwiftKey dataset, like Russian, Swedish, or Thai. But there’s no need to explain what a “meme” is to speakers of French, Czech, or Dutch. The exact same word exists in those languages with the exact same meaning. You don’t even have to translate it—they, like us English speakers, already have the virus.