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Monkey do.

Dear Word Detective:  What is a meme?  — Sally Purdy.

Oh, what isn’t a meme?  My spellchecker may not recognize the word (way to go, Open Office), but you can’t spend more than ten minutes on the internet before you’re knee-deep in “memes,” or what are labeled as such by the other netizens.  By the way, whatever became of “netizen”?  Of all the dippy coinages cooked up in the mid-1990s “internet evangelism” dementia, “netizen” (supposedly a combination of “internet” and “citizen”), meaning someone who, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it delicately, “uses the Internet, especially habitually,” was among the lamest (and quite possibly the most vacuously self-important).  I always preferred “mouse potato” myself.

I was kidding about the encyclopedic and omnivorous scope of the term “meme,” but the definition of the term offered by the OED certainly covers a lot of territory:  “A cultural element or behavioral trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (especially imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.”  In practical terms, “memes” include ideas, rumors, catch phrases (such as the Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that”), particular fashions (tattoos, baseball hats worn backwards), tunes or snatches of music (e.g., the old Dragnet “dum dee-DUM-dum”), urban legends (such as “Eskimos have 1000 words for snow”), traditional remedies (“beefsteak cures a black eye”), bizarre legal myths (“undercover cops are not allowed to deny they’re cops”), superstitions, dietary biases (e.g., pork as “unclean,” Brussels sprouts as “good for you”), more rumors, fads, prejudices, things we all know are true but aren’t, and LOLcats.  Just about everything that makes life fun, in other words.

The key to a “meme,” what separates a “meme” from a simple personal quirk, preference or fixation, lies in its transmission between people.  “Memeticists,” who are apparently paid to study the phenomenon of “memes,” hold that “memes” propagate through human society in roughly the same way that genetic traits and mutations spread.  “Memes” can, in this view, be inherited, transmitted, modified, and culled by natural selection just like hair color or height.

“Meme” is one of those rare new words that were definitely coined by an identifiable person, in this case by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene,” published in 1976.  Dawkins explained that he derived “meme” by shortening the Greek word  “mimeme,” meaning “that which is imitated,” and even stipulated that his new word should rhyme with “cream.”  Hmm.  I suddenly have the irresistible urge to start an internet rumor that the proper pronunciation of “meme” is “mim-MAY.”

So, in practical terms, a “meme” is something that you notice two or more unrelated people doing, saying, singing, dancing, wearing, eating or believing.  Pass it on.

Sea Change

Plus ça change?

Dear Word Detective:  What is the correct spelling and derivation of “sea change” or “C  change” (perhaps meaning an important or major change in some circumstance)? — Sean.

It’s a truism of anthropology that human beings are pattern-seeking creatures, and we tend to notice when things happen after (and perhaps because) other things happen.  This is as true of this column as it is of chicken farming or pole vaulting.  So when we decide to have a presidential election, I can expect to receive lots of questions about such words as “stump,” “caucus,” “soapbox,” “poll,” “ballot,” “narcolepsy” and “emigration.”  This means that I get to repeat myself in print at least a few times every four years, although I do my best to spice up the answers with fresh cat stories.

What’s a bit odd, although also absolutely predictable, is that whenever the winner of the election is not of the party to which the previous president belonged (still with me?), I am deluged with inquiries about the phrase “sea change” (which is indeed the correct spelling).  It’s almost as if the news media and their Pavlovian pundits were programmed to spit out this particular phrase whenever the White House gets new drapes, thereby confusing their listeners, who then write to me.  I’m not complaining, of course.  I just wish there were a way to float derivatives based on this certainty.

When pundits use the phrase “sea change” today, they usually mean “a profound change in the situation or the way things are done” (“Borosage said President-elect Obama’s victory spearheaded not only a change election, but a sea change election, marking the end of a conservative era,” Marketwatch, 11/07/08).

Like many of our most colorful phrases, “sea change” was coined by William Shakespeare, in this case in his play “The Tempest,” in Ariel’s song to Ferdinand:  “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”

Shakespeare’s “sea change” was more than a change in the appearance or functioning of the thing changed; it was a radical change in the very nature and composition of the thing itself (“Of his bones are coral made”), the kind of fundamental change that would result from long submersion in the sea.

As a metaphor for radical change, “sea change” had legs, as they say, although it certainly took a while to get going. The first use of the term in print found (so far) after Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in 1610 didn’t come until Ezra Pound’s poem “Lustra” in 1917.  Subsequent usage of the phrase tended to restrict it to situations where a truly momentous change had taken place (“The Messianic vision … has undergone some strange sea-changes outside Judaism,” 1976).

Unfortunately, as “sea change” has gained more popularity lately, its meaning has often been diluted and trivialized (“Gavin believes that this update indicates a sea change for the software and web applications…,”  In the ultimate insult to the Bard, “sea change” has been harnessed as bizspeak (“Business is in the midst of a sea change when it comes to staffing and retaining superior talent,” New York Times), and I’m sure that somewhere out there right now a trucking company is promising a “sea change in package delivery.”  Full fathom five them all, I say.


Of course, back then we actually had railroads.

Dear Word Detective:  On a recent episode of “Mad Men,” a person was referred to as a “trainwreck.”  That usage seemed anachronistic to me.  When did “trainwreck” start to mean a person whose life was out of control? — James E. Powell.

Good question.  I must admit that I haven’t been watching “Mad Men,” an AMC network series about the advertising industry in New York City in the early 1960s (which was largely centered on Madison Avenue, thus the “Mad”).  I did catch part of one early episode, but it gave me a creepy “trying much too hard” vibe that made it unwatchable for me.  “Mad Men” could use a dose of Stan Freberg.

Picking out the anachronisms on Mad Men has become a cottage industry among its more obsessive fans (just Google “Mad Men anachronisms”), but most “catches” seem to have to do with typography (fonts invented in the 1990s) and wallpaper patterns.  The only one that really jumped out at me as a major blooper was the show’s use of 1970s-vintage IBM Selectric II typewriters in the office scenes.  Of course, if that’s the worst that the nitpickers can come up with, chances are good that there aren’t any really egregious verbal anachronisms lurking in the show’s scripts.

And so it would seem in the case of the use of “trainwreck,” although the exact vintage of that expression is hard to pin down.  My first reaction, like yours, was that it must be an anachronism.  I don’t remember hearing a person called a “trainwreck” until at least the late 1970s or early 1980s, and even then, as I recall, it was the kind of usage one encountered in press coverage of Hollywood (“Friends described the star as a ‘trainwreck’ after her divorce”), rather than the sort of thing you’d use in casual conversation.  At least one dictionary of slang also dates the term to the 1980s.

But then I searched the archives of ADS-L, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, and discovered that back in 2005 linguist Ben Zimmer had posted an excerpt from a 1953 Washington Post article about the jargon of the TV industry.  In between “goulash” (a variety show) and “face factory” (the make-up room) was “train wreck,” meaning a TV show that was, for whatever reason, “a mess.”  It seems reasonable to assume that if a figurative use of “train wreck” to mean “mess” was TV jargon common enough to be included in a glossary in the early 1950s, the subsequent ten years until the period of “Mad Men” would be plenty of time for the term to migrate to Madison Avenue and be applied to an individual.

So while “trainwreck” didn’t become common in popular slang until at least the late 1970s, it’s not impossible that someone in the advertising industry would have used it in the 1960s.  Of course, we’ll probably never know whether the show’s writers actually knew that or simply dropped “trainwreck” into the script without thinking.