Memes and Language

If there is something human culture must be proud of giving birth, that is a meme. Memes are usually associated with the most modern types of language such as texting, expressions, jargon or other kind of informal communication. They are not simple ideas, but complex ones that inform memorable units.  Then again, memorable and inexorable as they are, they have not had a major role in critical analysis of languages. There is another unit of language that, on the other hand, has enjoyed more attention in the recent past: Metaphors. Among the most generous writers on the theme we find George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Their thesis, stated briefly, is: metaphor, rather than being exclusive to poetry and extraordinary language, is pervasive en everyday life: in thought and action. This may sound very nice and tidy, yet, metaphors, given their nature as units of language that refer to something other than what is literally stated by the symbols of which they are composed, must have a cultural component. And so, we wonder, is there a tighter relation between metaphors and memes? If so, what is the relation between memes and Lakoff and Johnson’s theory? Furthermore, how is it that we come to understand memes and what is their role in the process by which we acquire language? These are the questions that I will attempt to answer in the following pages.

Firstly, as this is an essay focused on language, it is only natural to begin by defining the most important term that will be discussed in this piece, namely, memes. Whereas human beings are able to transmit our genetic information down to the next generations by means of our biological features, culture and the realm of ideas are able to transmit their information by means of memes. In short, a meme is a unit of language that carries cultural ideas, symbols or practices. They are phrases, images, or sounds, and they spread themselves from person to person. As Daniel Dennett mentions, “just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” (Dennett, pg. 128) They are invisible, just as genes are (tentatively); they are carried by meme-vehicles, such as pictures, books and sayings (we have all met a colleague that has had the luck of becoming a meme…. ‘Oh, you did a Sharon!’). Their existence depends on a physical body that can function as their host. They behave like airborne invaders of our minds that enter through our eyes and ears just as parasites and bacteria invade our bodies through other routes.

Memes are an elusive concept by nature. Meme is itself a meme (Just as Milhouse will never be), a rare one as analytic philosophy has proven by not allowing it to be the subject of its articles. Examples there are many: music, writing, violence, metaphor, anti-Semitism, Ulysses, Then Who was Phone? They are units that carry compacted cultural concepts.

Most of these have never struck us as memes, but as simple concepts, ideas or names. But this is due not because they have ceased to have a vast cultural load, but because the cultural background necessary to understand those words have been with us our entire lives and we have forgotten their existence. We simply accept them as objects that exist “out there”; we take them for granted, and we forget that they are indeed contingent on a particular knowledge of our culture. But they are memes nonetheless.  For instance, in order to understand the word “music” one has to be in possession of a vast array of cultural information. For starters, one needs to know the English language. One also needs to have been exposed to some form of music, otherwise the word would be vacuous and its meaning would only contain the idea of producing rhythmic sounds, which would be useless still, because we also need to know the meaning of “rhythmic” and “sounds.” Even a deaf person must have a particular cultural background to understand “music,” whether it is watching a pretty girl playing piano or watching a man dance to the tunes of the Bee Gees. Those mental images are what compose the word “music,” and by nature, those components are cultural.

Now, many of you may wonder what is the “Then Who was Phone?” meme that I wrote above. This is an Internet meme, one, if not the most, sophisticated type of meme. It was originated in the image-board 4Chan and the source of it was a post in one of its forums. The original post read, “So ur with ur honey and yur making out wen the phone rigns. U anser it n the voice is ‘wut r u doing wit my daughter?’ U tell ur girl n she say ‘my dad is ded’. THEN WHO WAS PHONE?” After this post was submitted, it spurred an enormous amount of responses, replies and imitations; suddenly the phrase “THEN WHO WAS [X]?” quickly spread all over the image-board and the internet. There were images, videos, montages, jokes, political statements, social opinions, all formulated around that badly-written post.

The question by itself is surely nonsensical. In order to understand the meme, one has to know its cultural background. Even if one has not read the original post, it is necessary to know the environment in which it cropped out. Without the knowledge that there is an image-board called 4Chan, or without the knowledge that there are Internet memes that refer to a concept that is loaded with intentionally bad orthography and use of clichés, one could not grasp the significance of the meme, and be left to simply understand it as a nonsensical phrase.

Memes rarely originate purposefully, indeed they are the product of linguistic variations within the infosphere, just as certain biological traits are the product of random variations within the biosphere. They may crop up via a random post in an internet forum, or given a particularly heated vociferation by a politician or journalist. They appear because they satisfy their users. The physical vehicles that serve as hosts to memes (us) are provided with a pleasure and a gratification for using a phrase or image that allows them to feel like belonging within the particular culture to which the meme is making reference. There is an aesthetic pleasure in making a reference to a culturally loaded concept, namely that of participating in an activity shared by many, for instance using the same specific idiom.

Now, there is another linguistic unit that also provides its users with pleasure when using it: Metaphor. Eloquence, wit and luxury are all properties of a good and nicely-timed metaphor. There is surely a feeling of satisfaction when one is able to construct a valid and sound metaphor. It just fits and makes sense.

In addition to these “aesthetical impulses,” Ted Cohen (Cohen) argues that metaphors, too, are so popular in language because they achieve a level of intimacy between the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor. He notes that the utterer and the listener (or writer and reader) are drawn closer to one another through metaphor because when engaged in this particular feature of language, the maker issues a kind of hidden invitation which then is rewarded by the appreciator  with a particular effort, and this transaction constitutes the acknowledgment of a community. This sense of close community results not only from the awareness that an invitation has been offered and accepted, but also from the awareness that not everyone could offer that invitation, or accept it and take it up.

Of course, literal language also offers a sense of intimacy, for the simple fact that the interlocutors are sharing a specific language; however, this intimacy is not sufficiently exclusive. Millions and millions of people use English every day and this undermines the level of community that people experience when talking to each other. Conversely, “a figurative use [of language] can be inaccessible to all but those who share information about one another’s knowledge, beliefs, intentions, and attitudes.” (Cohen, pg. 9) In other words, figurative use of language requires a complex and sophisticated shared culture, which in turn enhances the communal experience.

Metaphor has been historically regarded as a device of poetic imagination and rhetorical flourish; and for this reason, most people regard it as being a linguistic luxury. However, as Lakoff and Johnson have pointed out, metaphors are not only present in fiction or poetry, but pervade in the everyday concepts that govern our thoughts. Metaphors exist in every level of our language, for they are a vital component of our conceptual structure.

The manner in which we understand and perceive the world is shaped by our concepts. These concepts give structure to reality and allow us to form webs of understanding. And it is in the simplest things, particularly in the way we use language and create language (within ourselves), that we come to realize that our conceptual scheme is fundamentally metaphorical.

As Lakoff and Johnson rightly point, this conceptual system is not something most people are aware of; in fact, it is often taken for granted and never questioned or analyzed. It serves us well and for that reason we simply obey it by acting and perceiving just the way it tells us to act and perceive without any further consideration. For this reason, the claim that our conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical might seem somewhat far-fetched. Then again, our conceptual system is bound to our language; indeed it is language that establishes and allows our concepts to work and exist. The way we think, the way we talk, our behavior, our unconscious drives, they are all, in some form or other, the expression of a language. And so it is only natural, if we are to give evidence of the central claim of this section, that we focus on linguistic evidence.

Before we go in deeper,  I must make a slight pause. Lakoff and Johnson have long debated the claim that metaphors are pervasive in our everyday life, and have dedicated long articles and even entire books to prove this point. For this reason, it would be foolish to try to reproduce their arguments in full-length and condense it in just a few paragraphs. For that reason, I will only explore one example that might give the reader an idea of how they go about with their argument. Having said so, let us consider the metaphorical concept of “Time is Money.”

First, let us consider the vast array of expressions and phrases that are produced by this metaphorical concept.

You’re wasting my time.

How do you spend your time these days?

You’re running out of time.

I don’t have enough time.

Just as Lakoff and Johnson note, in modern Western culture, the concept of work is normally associated with time. It has become a custom to pay by the hour, week, or year. Compensation is often thought of in terms of time, and even prison sentences are often referred as “doing time.” Time has been quantified and thought of as a valuable commodity, and we not only think and talk in a way that demonstrates this, but we also act accordingly. We understand the concept of time as a metaphor involving money, for we think of it and experience it as if it could be spent, saved, invested or wasted.

“Time is money” is tied with our everyday experience with time, money and limited resources. However, it is important to note (even though it is quite plain) that Time is not intrinsically tied in with money, as it is not a necessary condition to think time as money in order to conceptualize Time. The reason we (Western society) have it in such a way that they are inseparable is due to our cultural background. Culture has shaped the way we experience the world both mentally and physically (experiences), and since Time and Money are culturally tied in, our interior concepts are also tied in.

Lakoff and Johnson’s argument revolves around the idea that our conceptual system works metaphorically given the fact that concepts are loaded culturally. This cultural load permeates in our minds in such a way that the manner in which the concepts are used in culture transfers into our thinking of those concepts, indeed in our very grasping of the concept.

And so here at last we come back to memes. Memes, by definition, are culturally loaded units of language; indeed they are the “genes” of language. The question I shall consider, therefore, is: aren’t metaphors a type of meme?

But before we try to answer such a question, we must first elucidate on the nature of metaphors.

A metaphor is a linguistic device used to understand a thing in terms of another. It constructs a bridge between two concepts in order to further the understanding of the concepts in question. By linking the two concepts with an identifying verb (is, was, are), we highlight (and hide) certain qualities of one concept and apply them to another. So for instance, consider the metaphor: “Sally is an ice cube.” Here certain properties of an ice cube are applied to certain characteristics of Sally. Definitely the sentence is not alluding to the possibility that Sally is, in fact, an ice cube (although, if this were the first sentence in a children’s book, I might consider it)—the reader of such sentence is aware of this and recognizes it as a metaphor, and so begins to scan both concepts in search for transferable properties.[1] This is the invitation Cohen refers to. We invite the appreciator of the metaphor to discern which properties are applicable to Sally.

In a normal situation, we could safely say that the metaphor alludes to the fact that Sally is “cold” with people, that is, Sally is somewhat indifferent or behaves in a very crude and austere manner. But how is it that we can come to know this? Is there really an objective link between the coldness of an ice cube and the way a human being might behave? If not, where do we gather the information necessary to deduce what the utterer or writer of the metaphor is alluding to?

We can discard right away that an ice cube has any objective similarity with Sally for Sally is a human and as such is made out of flesh and bone, and the ice cube, well, it’s made of ice. So, if there is no intrinsic value from which we could establish the relationship between Sally and an ice cube, the value must be artificial, i.e. cultural.

From this it is easy to come to the conclusion that metaphors need a cultural parameter in order to be understood. If coldness wasn’t culturally associated (like Time is with Money) with being indifferent or unsympathetic or insensitive, then the metaphor would be meaningless; it would be like saying “Sally is a block of cheese” whereby the invitation presented by the maker of the metaphor is incredibly difficult if not impossible to take on. Metaphors are successful if the relation between the concepts in question has a cultural background shared by the interlocutors, otherwise the appreciator has no parameter with which to judge and determine the metaphor, and it would be an exercise of guessing and inventing rather than interpreting.

For instance take the above example, “Sally is a block of cheese.” Here we all agree, or at least let’s assume that there is no cultural backgroun that could help us understand the metaphor. A block of cheese isn’t normally associated with a person, at least in (my appreciation of) Western culture. So if we came straight to Sally and told her: “You are a block of cheese” she would probably frown and stare with confusion. Granted, there might be some connection between Sally and a block of cheese….you might say that Sally is yellow and this might mean that she is a coward. Or you might say that Sally smells bad. You could build a series of guesses that could, tentatively, be right and function within the boundaries of the metaphor. However, the chances that Sally can gather what the maker of the metaphor is trying to say are minimal, and any success that the metaphor enjoys will be the product of chance, not of Sally’s effort of picking up our intension.

Metaphors draw their power not from the ability the appreciator might have at guessing possible meanings, but rather on whether the metaphor is successfully alluding to a culturally-established association. Here it must also be pointed out that the culturally-established association need not be something that covers a wide population, it may be that it only covers the maker and the appreciator. It may be an inside joke, or a particular experience the interlocutors shared, or even their particular knowledge of each other.

We therefore come to the conclusion: metaphors are memes, for their entire purpose is to carry out and expose a particular cultural background. It is true that our ability to discern which properties are to be considered and which properties are to be discarded plays an important role; however, this process comes after the metaphor has uploaded the relevant cultural information into the conversation. We determine which properties are valuable and which aren’t in virtue of the cultural parameter that we have. The sense of intimacy Cohen argued for, relates to the specific infosphere created for the specific conversation. The infosphere will be loaded with a set of information (cultural background) and it is this information that needs to be recognized in the invitation.

In other words, metaphors are memes for the simple reason that metaphors too are units that transmit cultural concepts. Now, let us look at three kinds of metaphors. The first and most easily overlooked type of metaphor is dead metaphors such as “Computer virus.” In this case, there is nothing really interesting going on terms of whether the metaphor is a meme, because it obviously is as the metaphor has established itself as a unit and not as a relation between an X and a Y. It is simply alluding to a cultural identity embedded in them.

Another type of metaphor to consider is extended metaphors, which is the most common type of metaphor. It establishes a comparison between two or more subjects. Our example of “Sally is an ice cube” is a clear instance of this. And as I argued above, in this case the cultural association of “ice cube” with “indifference” or “insensitivity” is vital for understanding the metaphor. The metaphor alludes to this cultural content.

Finally, we shall consider absolute metaphors, or Catachresis.  Here the words are used to fill a gap or to denote a trope that cannot be reduced. An example of this is the word “light” as standing for “truth.” This is a very complex and interesting type of metaphor for it fills a space that has no proper term; the metaphor transforms a word into a concept. Then again, interesting as it may be in the fields of the philosophy of language, it is also trivial in our attempt to identify metaphors as memes because an absolute metaphor is the most perfect example of a meme. Catachresis transforms a word, which has a literal meaning, into a culturally loaded concept. Just as the meme “Then who was phone?” transforms a question that has a definite literal meaning (flawed as it may be) into a culturally-loaded idea, catachresis does likewise.

Now we must come back to Lakoff and Johnson’s argument. They argued that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life given our conceptual systems being fundamentally metaphorical—i.e. the language that dominates our conceptual schemes is metaphorical.  However, if metaphors are memes, then could we transfer their argument and claim that Language is built on memes?

First we need to incur into what we mean by the concepts we are examining, this time we must explain what “language” means. Language, in its most basic form, is a collection of symbols that work around a structure that presupposes a shared culture, where this culture is, for its part, based upon learning the meaning of the different symbols. So for example, the word “tree” in order to work as a word in the English language, requires the user and all the interlocutors to have some experience of a tree and to be conscious of the relation between that experience with the sound “tree” and the image “tree.”

Now, with an analysis of language and its philosophy, one need be careful about what emphasis would be fruitful for the purposes of the discussion, as it is easy to get lost in semantic labyrinths. There are many theories on meaning and language but, interesting as they may be, our focus will be to attempt to answer the question: how do we acquire language? And so come to a conclusion regarding what language is made of.

Language acquisition is happening all the time. Every day we learn new words, new mannerisms, new expressions. But the process of acquiring such units and of forming a coherent system has been a matter of long-lasting debate. Among the theories that approach the subject, two I consider particularly noteworthy. The first one is the relational frame theory, which puts forward the idea that people acquire language purely through the interaction with the environment; the second one is the emergentist theory, which posits the idea that we acquire language through a cognitive process that consists of biological pressures and the environment. Now, we must note that both theories depend on the drive to emulate and imitate sounds and images and link them with gathered knowledge. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether we learn language by means of an innate virtue that guides our learning or whether it is simply a matter of nature against nurture, nature being our innate qualities—the interior mechanisms of our minds—and nurture being our experiences; in either case we are gathering sounds and images and sticking meanings unto them.  But these meanings are necessarily based on the cultural environment, even if the way we acquire them is up for grabs.

Take for example the concept of God, and take Descartes argument that the concept of God is in fact not cultural, but rather an imprint of God. Descartes’ posture does pose a problem to the argument; however, we can easily see that there is a major flaw in his thinking by simply noting that people have different concepts of deities based on their cultural environment. A Muslim will have a completely different concept of God than that of a Catholic or a Buddhist.

Meaning is inherently cultural—the meaning of something is determined solely by the meaning the culture in hand has given to it, even if the way we gather these meanings is up for debate. The words, expressions, and mannerisms that we acquire in language are determined by cultural associations, and we understand them in terms of these associations; meaning, therefore, is a cluster of cultural information. True, what this cluster consists of is a matter of high-heated debate, but still the reference to it remains. When we acquire language we are acquiring units that allude to cultural concepts, and so when we acquire language we are actually acquiring memes.

But the matter is not quite settled for there are millions of memes, just as there are millions of words, expressions and so forth. How is it, then, that we manage to get one language, if the possibilities are endless and the only parameter through which we acquire language is that its units are culturally loaded?

Let me start this with a joke: the English, the Chinese and the German Language walk into a bar. They order a few beers and they get to talking, and in a minute they begin to argue about who would beat who in a real fight. And the Chinese says, ‘Of course I would! I’m made out of two billion people!’ The German shakes his head and says, ‘Of course I would! I’m made out of balls and wieners!’ The English ponders for a moment and smiles. He says, ‘Of course, I already won. We’re talking in English.’

Language is inherently competitive. It is the most furious, intolerable, unforgiving and violent thing in the world.

It is not unreasonable to say that schools of thought evolve into their successors. Just as Daniel Dennet notes, “In the struggle for attention, the best ideas win, according to the principle of the survival of the fittest, which ruthlessly winnows out the banal, the unimaginative, the false.” (pg.128) Memes spread in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain: If a writer hears a good expression, he will write it down and pass it on to his readers and colleagues. This is what determines which memes stay in our mind and which are discarded. But of course, it is a subjective matter; some people will find certain memes more original and more luxurious while others might find them false and banal. Just as certain environments will be able to host, say, hippopotamus and not, say, alligators, our brains are fertilized in such a way that we are keener to welcome certain memes and reject other ones. But, just like any fauna or flora, or indeed genes, memes strive to reproduce as much as they can.

Dennet points out that “meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genic evolution. It is not just a process that can be metaphorically described in theses evolutionary idioms, but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection exactly.” (Dennett, pg. 128) Memes are like any other thing that is evolving. They have variability—there is a flowing abundance of different elements. They have the ability to create copies or replicas of themselves—the memes “violence” and “metaphor” replicate themselves through college courses which carry and propagate them. And there is a differential “fitness” to them, so that the success a meme may have at replicating itself depends on the interaction between the characteristics of the meme and the features of the environment. For instance, this essay is propagating many memes like “culturally loaded” or “infosphere” or even “meme,” just as during a particularly severe financial crisis the media propagates the memes “meldown” or “recession.”

There is a very particular violence embedded in the process of language acquisition. As all species strive to survive and propagate their own genes and impose themselves upon the others, memes are also driven by the same urge. For instance, consider the meme “Capitalism” and the meme “Communism.” The armies and the propaganda and the ideas that are taken to be Capitalism and Communism are simply the physical embodiments of those memes. They desperately want to take a hold on a strong, fit and able physical vessel. And since they are conflicting memes, that is, a being cannot host “capitalism” and “communism” at the same time (unless there is a particular behavioral disorder in place). They fight to impose themselves in the population. The violence in hand is the violence inherent in natural selection—the survival of the fittest.

When we acquire language, especially at a young age, we are the target of millions and millions of memes that seek to inhabit our brains. Teenagers are struck with memes like “emo” or “goth” or “intellectual” or “athletic.” All of these struggle, by means of peer pressure from those that host those memes, or by the exposure they have in life (media, parents, school), to be able to get into our brain, just as a virus tries to get into a computer or seize your immune system.

Consider also entire languages such as “Old English.” We are safe to say that that meme and the ones that inform it are only alive in the minds of Shakespeare aficionados and literary geeks. On the other hand, consider the informal English jargon made up of words such as “sup” or “web” or “yo.” Those memes have beaten and, in a sense, have left the Old English (think of the word “thee”) in the brink of extinction.

Memes are as infectious as the most versatile fauna or flora. For instance, the other day I found myself, to great shame, humming the viral song “Friday” by Rebecca Black[2]. Now, I know that the song is quite repetitive, iridescent and, if I may say so, stupid. Yet the meme does not need to be bright, original or even melodious, it just needs to be good at replicating itself. “Friday” is good at that, extremely good, so good that it has made more than 140 million people watch it. Or consider the meme “Over 9000” that, even ten years after being created, still persists and is probably the best known Internet meme.

In the end, it is difficult to accept that it may well be that memes dominate us and not the other way around. Tis may be so perhaps because the memes “consciousness”, “human pride” and “spirituality” have taken control and have made us reject that idea. And even if in this essay I attempted to construct a link between metaphors and memes and argue for an interpretation of language as clusters of memes, I am aware that the real purpose, if the claims that I put forward are correct, is to simply create in your minds aggressive copies of the memes that inhabit mine. And the real hope may well be not to convince you of a certain point, but simply to succeed in reproducing memes such as “culture”, “meme” and, sadly, “Friday.”


  • Cohen, T. (1978) Metaphor and the Cultivation of Intimacy, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 1, Special Issue on Metaphor, pp. 3-12.
  • Dennett, D. (1990) Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 127-135.
  • Holdcroft, D. Lewis, H. (2000) Memes, Minds and Evolution, Philosophy, Vol. 75, No. 292, pp. 161-182.
  • Lakoff, G., Johnson, M. (1980) Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 8, pp. 453-486.

[1] It would be very interesting and perhaps useful for the purposes of this essay to discuss how it is that we tell which properties are applied and which properties are ignored. But as it is, this discussion would extend this essay into an undesired length and would only injure the primary point of the text.

[2] I am aware that this is a way of propagating the meme, and I do apologize for that.


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3 Responses to “Memes and Language”

  1. sizzling lemon Says:

    I have been learning a bit of the “meme evolution” at school, and this post was a great read!

  2. the paradox of “literal interpretations” (and how to stop being perfect) « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality Says:

    […] Memes and Language ( Share this:FacebookLinkedInTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  3. For those who argue over the existence of language, God, or atheism « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality Says:

    […] Memes and Language ( […]

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