A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Effacing Richard Dawkins, or, Why You Can’t Make a Meme Happen Alone --- A Response by Kristopher M. Lotier

Kristopher M. Lotier, Hofstra University

(Published March 4, 2020)

The 2004 film Mean Girls (written by Tina Fey and based on Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 self-help guide Queen Bees and Wannabees) gets a lot of things right, including something that, I would argue, a lot of scholars get wrong: those who coin new words just aren’t as important as they are often credited with being. After transferring to a new high school in a new country, Cady Heron (played by Lindsay Lohan) must determine whether—and if so, how—to join the school’s most popular female clique, the Plastics. That group, led by queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams), also includes Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) and Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried). Early on in the film, Cady joins the Plastics for lunch, and Regina compliments her bracelet, calling it “so adorable.” Joining the chorus, Gretchen agrees with, “So fetch,” to which Regina disgustedly responds, “What is ‘fetch’?” Surprised to have been dismissed publicly, Gretchen responds with a hint of exasperation: “Oh, it’s, like, slang . . . from England.” In a later scene, Regina plays a mean-spirited trick on a fellow classmate, and Gretchen applauds her again with, “Ok, that was so fetch.” Regina smiles half-heartedly, slow-blinks, and walks away. Finally, following Cady and the Plastics’ performance at the school talent show, her mathletes teammate Kevin (Rajiv Surendra) offers her some brief but sincere praise offstage. Gretchen woefully misunderstands the situation, and after a brief interchange, she tells Cady, “You love him, and he totally complimented you. That is so fetch.” This time, Regina asserts the full force of her alpha-female social capital to shut her friend up, exclaiming, “Gretchen, stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not going to happen.”

At this moment, “fetch” is cast from the remainder of the film. However, even though “fetch” subsequently disappears from Mean Girls, it has outlived the film in surprising and unpredictable ways. Gretchen may have failed to coin “fetch” as a word, but internet users—in a diffuse and decentralized way—have carried it forth under erasure, by making “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ X happen” happen as a meme.

Meme image featuring phrase: Stop trying to make alt-left happen. It's not gonna happen.

Figure 1: Zapichigo, Stop Trying to Make 'Alt-Left' Happen, image macro meme.

Meme image featuring phrase: Stop trying to make covfefe happen. It's not gonna happen.

Figure 2: MarciaLeVigne, Stop Trying to Make Covfefe Happen, image macro meme.


When contemplated as a noun, the internet meme is a strange and difficult-to-pin-down phenomenon, mostly because so many things seem to qualify and so little remains consistent. Image macros—pictures with superimposed captions (as seen above in fig. 1 and fig.2)—may be the prototypical memes. But notably, not even all image-macro genres follow the exact same rules. All valid entries in some genres, such as What-If-I-Told-You, employ the exact same image (a picture of Morpheus, Laurence Fishburne’s character in The Matrix) and overlay variants of the given catchphrase (e.g., “What if I told you…”) on top of it. In other genres, such as Stop Trying to Make X Happen, the image may vary but the catchphrase remains reasonably stable. However, in other image macro genres, both image and catchphrase may vary. As Kate Brideau and Charles Berret note, the only thing that seems particularly stable about image macros is their font (Impact), which for whatever reason has become the unofficial but universal default setting (“Brief Introduction”).

Image macros may be the prototypical internet memes, but a catchphrase (say, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch”) spoken aloud, video-taped, and shared can also become a meme; so can a bodily posture like planking, or Tebowing, or dabbing, if enough people do it. Likewise, a particular style of video parody can become a meme as well (e.g., a fictionalized Hitler reacting animatedly to any and everything). In terms of medium, content, tone, and style, many of these things have little in common, whether on the surface or even upon closer inspection. Contemplating memes in terms of defining traits, then, may not be the best way to go.

Rather than asking what memes are (as though the category had an essence), one is better off examining how they come into being. In her own definition of internet memes, Limor Shifman hints at as much, calling them “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated, and transformed by individual Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience in the process” (“Memes in a Digital World” 367). In other words, it’s the verbs—circulating, imitating, transforming, sharing—that matter. The contents themselves are secondary, largely incidental. In a very real way, a meme doesn’t even have content (i.e., a stable core) until it has circulated and been imitated and transformed; its “content” is whatever remains durable during that process or emerges after it.


Read nearly any article on internet memes and you’ll notice a common refrain.[i] Scholar after scholar will note, in some form or another, that Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 work, The Selfish Gene (in addition to those cited below, see also: Carter 5, Kien 6, Lincoln 6, Phillips 21). That fact is not under dispute here; even the Oxford English Dictionary confirms it. So it might seem reasonable for internet-meme scholars to cite Dawkins ad infinitum, except that their articles also evidence a separate refrain: though in differing ways, these scholars inevitably explain that the term “meme,” as they use it, doesn’t mean what Dawkins means by meme. As we shall see, for Dawkins, memes are distributed, replicating cultural patterns or practices, and they compete with one another in a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest struggle. Thus, if the meme of citing Dawkins produces more problems than it solves—even producing the otherwise unnecessary disavowing-Dawkins meme—then its “survival value” should be quite low (Dawkins, Selfish Gene 193). One might therefore advocate a separate meme altogether: not citing Dawkins. I’ll first make that case on the basis of memetic theory alone.

However, I ultimately want to make a larger claim about the nature of language and the relative (un)importance of those who first introduce new terms. Because memes themselves transform via circulation, the term “meme” presents a particularly illuminating test-case for my theorizing. But, my argument has ramifications for the citational practices of all scholars, not just those interested in memes—whether internet or otherwise. To make my case, I’ll turn to Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in Non-Moral Terms.” While it’s common—all too common—to cite those who coin terms indefinitely, I want to argue against that tendency. As Nietzsche suggests, the basic function of a word is to equate (to a passable degree) non-equivalent phenomena—to form a category, or what he would call a “concept” (83). From his perspective, then, unique, original utterances become words as traces of their initial contexts disappear—and as they escape the prescriptive, definitional authority of those who “coined” them.

Aiming to explain all phenomena in Darwinian terms, Dawkins uses “meme” to denote the cultural equivalent of a “gene”—something that gets transmitted only by surviving competition and attack. Language, Dawkins notes, “is only one example out of many”; others include “fashions in dress and diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering and technology,” as well as “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (190, 192). Though non-living, memes still exhibit the survival of the fittest (Dawkins, Selfish Gene 191, 189, 192). Just like genes, then, memes are “subject to continuous mutation, and also to blending” (195). In a commonly cited passage, Dawkins introduces the term, stating,

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as related to ‘memory’, to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’ (192)

Notably, although Dawkins is commonly credited with coining “meme,” he admits to merely importing, transliterating, and condensing it. Furthermore, he isn’t even the first person to make this basic move; he’s just the first to do so in English:

In 1870 the Austrian sociologist Ewald Herring coined the phrase Die Mneme (from the Greek mneme, meaning memory), which the German biologist Richard Semon used as a title for his 1904 book Die Mnemischen Emfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Orignalempfindungen (Shifman, “Memes in a Digital World” 363).

In any case, Dawkins forthrightly acknowledges having designed the word to appeal to its readers. “Meme” needed to have a “suitable” etymological origin, be easy to say, and be easily associable (even if not quite rhyming) with its counterpart term, “gene” (192). Though Dawkins would likely chafe at the comparison, his linguistic efforts closely resemble those of a high schooler trotting out a new slang term in the cafeteria. One thinks here of Mean Girls’s poor Gretchen Wieners, defending the merits of “fetch”: “It’s, like, slang… from England.” It has noble origins, but it’s also, umm, cool.

Now, certainly norms of scholarship and politeness compel one to give credit where credit is due. In Dawkinsian terms, we might even call citational patterns memes. But, relatively few ideas are directly attributable to one and only one scholar. Thus, who gets cited with reference to a given concept, at a given time, in a given conversation is as much a matter of social convention as anything else. Do you still need to cite Foucault every time you use the word power? Judith Butler (and/or J. L. Austin?) when you use performative? If I were to argue that national identity is a virtual category and that it’s (at least partially) produced via the circulation of texts, I could use the term “imagined community” and cite Benedict Anderson or “public” and cite Michael Warner. Or, I could do neither, assume that the insight is uncontroversial “common knowledge” within a given discourse, and reject both citational patterns. To cite Anderson or Warner would be to propagate—to continue the survival—of a cultural pattern, a meme; to leave them un-cited would be one gesture toward the death of a citational meme.

Almost all internet-meme scholars credit Dawkins with coining “meme,” though in different ways and for different reasons. Of course, Dawkins accounts for that sort of mutation via transmission. He suggests that all biologists can believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution without any having “graven in his brain, an identical copy of the exact words of Charles Darwin himself.” They can even be Darwinians while admitting that “much of what Darwin said is, in detail, wrong” (195). After granting all of those caveats, Dawkins still contends, “There is something, some essence of Darwinism, which is present in the head of every individual who understands the theory” (195-96). The theory could be parceled into components, and adherents could choose to accept some elements but not others. But, the places where beliefs diverged would be “by definition, not part” of the original, purportedly conceptually unified (singular) meme. Rather, each component might be construed as its own meme (196). However, there’s an important difference between the variations that Dawkins attributes to Darwinism and the variations in reference to his own work. By his accounting, at least, “all biologists nowadays believe in Darwin's theory” (195). The same can’t be said for all scholars of internet memes. Many, it seems to me, could not care less about Dawkins; they cite him out of obligation or habit, not for the sake of endorsement.

On one end of the spectrum, we find authors who respect Dawkins’s usage and seemingly disdain its alteration. Heidi E. Huntington, for example, describes the term “meme” as having been “appropriated from Richard Dawkins’ coined word” and applied to specific, digital objects (“Pepper Spray Cop” 78). Along similar lines, Jean Burgess argues that internet memes are “similar to [Dawkins’s] scientific usage in meaning if not analytical precision” (“All” 87). Next, we find those sympathetic to Dawkins but willing to acknowledge problems with his initial formulation. Shifman credits Dawkins with coining the “conceptual troublemaker,” but also admits it has “been the subject of constant academic debate, derision, and even outright dismissal” (“Memes in a Digital World” 362). But, even if “the meme concept” has been “widely disputed in academia,” she concedes that it “has enthusiastically been picked up by internet users.” However, she hastens to add, “This vernacular use . . . is utterly different from the one prevalent in the academic study of memetics”; there is a “yawning gap” between the two (“Memes in a Digital World” 364).

Scholars in the middle of the spectrum see the internet meme as a particular instantiation of a general category and often express ambivalence about the term’s alteration. Jacqueline Ryan Vickery, for example, provides “the broadest definition” of memes, which she attributes to Dawkins, before explaining others’ interventions “within the context of online memes” (“Curious Case” 301). Likewise, Ioana Literat and Sarah van den Berg seem to cite Dawkins from a sense of compulsion:

The concept of meme as a unit of culture that spreads from person to person through various imitative forms is popularly traced back to biologist Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976), and given valence as a useful concept for understanding digital culture by a growing body of scholarship. (“Buy Memes Low” 234; emphasis added)

Other scholars identify a tension between Dawkins’s abstract definition and internet memes as actually existing phenomena, but do not fully account for the distinction. Erika M. Sparby distinguishes between behavioral memes (culturally normalized acts, habits, and rituals) and content memes (the products of those acts, habits, and rituals). Sparby analyzes user behavior on 4chan’s /b/ board—the epicenter of online trolling and the digital homeland of Anonymous—and considers it “to be largely a Dawkinsian meme,” insofar as “users imitate or present only slightly altered versions of what they think is the appropriate way to act on /b/ (Sparby 86).[ii] Only one page later, though, she affirms that /b/ is “best known for producing countless internet memes,” by which she means content memes (especially image macros). In doing so, Sparby privileges the content meme as the unmarked term in her analysis. For her, it appears to hold a synecdochal relation to the broader category of internet memes. Similarly, immediately after noting the production of internet memes on /b/, Sparby appends a footnote: “This kind of meme is distinct from the Dawkinsian type”—a marked term, apparently, despite her never explaining quite how the two differ (86).

Moving toward the other pole, we find those who frame the internet meme as overcoming, even occluding Dawkins’s original conception. Michael Soha and Zachary J. McDowell refer to dance crazes (e.g., The Twist, The Hustle, and The Macarena) as being “memes in the pre-Internet, Richard Dawkins sense of the term” (4). They thus imply that Dawkins’s definition no longer predominates historically, especially online. Similarly, Lezandra Grundlingh explains that Dawkins’s “original use of the term meme referred to sports, religion, ideas, catch-phrases, language, etc.” (1). She then immediately cites Ryan Milner’s definition of “internet memes”—“amateur media artifacts, extensively remixed and recirculated by different participants on social media networks”—and notes that her own usage will refer to Milner’s definition, not Dawkins’s (2).

Finally, there are scholars who wish to dispense with the term “meme” entirely. In his investigation of the Fail/Win phenomenon, Eric S. Jenkins acknowledges, “Surely it exists—it circulates, gets imitated, reappropriated.” Though admitting that “these phenomena are commonly referred to as Internet memes, borrowing Richard Dawkins’ term for a cultural replicator,” Jenkins prefers to conceive of Fail/Win as a mode. As he notes, “The memetic approach leaves unexplained what is replicated and how replication occurs” (446).[iii] Curiously though, on the very next page, Jenkins suggests, “Although virtual rather than actual, Fail/Win mode is real, existent. It has circulated to the point where it has become a recognized meme” (447; emphasis added).

Jenkins’s final point approaches my central argument, so let me foreground it and then temporarily lay it aside. For Jenkins, Fail/Win did not start out as a meme, but it became one through circulation, as more and more people employed it. I think that he’s right on this point: this is how memes work. Memes are not produced by isolated individuals; they only emerge through de-centralized collective action. However, I want to do more with this point than Jenkins. As both he and Mean Girls indicate: on your own, you can never make “fetch” happen. Indeed, like queen bee Regina George, 4chan enthusiasts hastily condemn forced memes, which are “imposed on the board’s repertoire rather than emerging organically from the community” (Nissenbaum and Shifman 492). Hence this day-late, buck-short image macro:

Meme image featuring phrase: Stop trying to make this meme happen. It's not gonna happen.

Figure 3: An image macro meme that states, "Stop trying to make this meme happen. It's not going to happen."

Language itself operates similarly: a unique, individual utterance only becomes a word when it is applied (i.e., circulated) outside the context of its emergence, thereby acquiring, accruing, and/or accreting meanings. You can intend to attach a meaning to a signifier (i.e., a noise or a string of symbols), but that doesn’t mean it actually will signify what you intended to others. Within the Mean Girls universe, “fetch” isn’t an American-English word when Gretchen uses it, even if it’s (allegedly) a word in British-English. It’s just an annoying, repetitive sound. To become a word, it would require others—Cady, or Regina, or Karen, or whoever—to accept and/or use it, as well.

Later, I’ll consider the etymological and conceptual connections between words and coins. To anticipate those remarks, I would note that a coinage doesn’t function as linguistic currency unless it has exchange value. Someone else (other than the coiner) has to attribute value (i.e., meaning) to it.[iv] Thus, a lot of words (“fetch” included) become the linguistic equivalents of two-dollar bills, which still constitute 3% of all US currency in circulation, though they’re used in far less than 3% of all transactions (Vinciguerra). Few people acquire them via normal circulation; you have to intentionally seek them out. But they’re still out there somewhere, valued more as curiosities than for the sake of spending. Indeed, despite their status as legal tender, some cashiers refuse to take two-dollar bills (because their registers lack a slot for them), and so do many vending machines. Sometimes you can’t use them, even though you should always be able to. Likewise, try using some of your old G.R.E. vocab-list words in casual conversation with non-academics—i.e., the sybarite’s solecisms made me lachrymose, or something like that—and see how that goes.

In most cases, it doesn’t matter where words came from or who coined them; they’re held in common. However, when a word is considered to be new (as when μίμημα is transliterated and contracted and becomes an English word) and when that word has a known, recognizable “creator,” the tendency to credit the first person to use it can be(come) pronounced. I will acknowledge the merits of doing so early in a word’s circulation; grounding a new utterance in prior usage(s) can help guide subsequent interpretation. However, at some point, the originator always becomes irrelevant, and acknowledging her/him/them can become counter-productive. Before considering this broader perspective on language, though, let us consider the mutation of “meme” as a meme by turning to one final author: Richard Dawkins himself.

In 2013, Dawkins appeared in a conceptual art installation by the London-based design studio Marshmallow Laser Feast. In the course of the installation, things get weird: Dawkins’s pixelated, disembodied head floats around the screen like a comet before the laser beam eyes of a horned owl bisect it, after which point a purple brain with eyes emerges. Then, things get much, much weirder. You just need to watch it.

Figure 4: “"Just for Hits," featuring Richard Dawkins.

But before all of the weirdness, Dawkins delivers epideictic remarks on the meme. He states:

The very idea of the meme has itself mutated and evolved in a new direction. An internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea. Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity. In the hijacked version, mutations are designed, not random, with the full knowledge of the person doing the mutating. In some cases, this can take the form of genuinely creative art. But, now that I think about it, mightn’t somebody argue that all creative art comes about through something like a mutation in the mind. (Dawkins “Just for Hits”)

To be sure, internet memes do depart from Dawkins’s original meme concept, and he explains distinctions between the two cogently. Most internet content (memes included) is judged not in terms of how good or bad it is, but in terms of how interesting it is—how well it introduces novelty into similarity, how well it both repeats and varies simultaneously. Internet memes are, as a result, designed so as to be distinct from previous iterations. Dawkinsian memes, in contrast, may evolve in interesting ways or to display interesting features, but that interestingness is accidental, not planned.

And yet, an unresolved tension remains in Dawkins’s remarks. At first, in a suitably Darwinian gesture, he claims that “the very idea of the meme has itself mutated and evolved in a new direction” (“Just for Hits”). However, wishing to place bounds on evolution, he still argues that internet memes represent “a hijacking of the original idea.” Though an avowed, even militant atheist, Dawkins presents himself as an Intelligent Designer or what Roland Barthes would call an Author-God, attempting to affix a “single ‘theological’ meaning” to the term “meme” (Barthes, “Death” 146). Now, I say this as far less a Darwinian than Dawkins, but certainly there’s a greater evolutionary gap between single-celled organisms and sentient lifeforms than between his meme concept and image macros like Socially Awkward Penguin. If the former sort of biological evolution could occur, why deny a similarly unforeseen and unforeseeable mutation among cultural phenomena—the meaning of a word, for instance? If memes invariably alter as they circulate, then it strikes me as odd to identify a new iteration as having been stolen or taken by force. In contrast, as Bradley E. Wiggins and G. Bret Bowers argue, the term “meme” may be “a prime example of what a meme is or does, in the tradition of Dawkins, infecting language and thought, replicating itself within the minds and language of individuals” (“Memes as Genre” 1890).

Although Dawkins admits to creating the original “meme” terminology so that it might become a catchphrase, he didn’t create it with the internet meme in mind; at that time, the World Wide Web didn’t even exist. Through the diffuse, decentralized process of its transmission and/or circulation, though, the term “meme” became much more closely associated with (what came to be called) internet meme phenomena. The internet meme now holds the hegemonic high ground; in some fundamental, cultural sense, it has survived, whereas Dawkins’s original, broader conception has become vestigial. Ask a teenager from a developed nation what a meme is and they’ll probably be able to tell you, but they’ll cite whatever’s trending at the moment, not Richard Dawkins. If there’s an illegitimate display of force, it arises from Dawkins in his efforts to control something he fundamentally cannot control—a fact he should understand and accept, as the one who coined the term.


In the English language, words and coins are closely connected. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “coin” as a verb, meaning “to make (money) by stamping metal,” entered the language circa 1330. By 1400, a closely related but more precise definition had emerged: “To make (metal) into money by stamping pieces of definite weight and value with authorized marks or characters; to convert into coin.” This second definition foregrounds authority; not just anyone can produce coins, and only certain marks may appear. The third definition (emerging in 1577) similarly emphasizes authorized stamping but applies it to non-monetary items: “To stamp officially (tin blocks of standard weight).” The fourth (circa 1616) foregrounds the act, rather than the actor, or even the production of value: coining as any stamping of figures “in or on a coin”—though not necessarily for the sake of creating money.

The fifth definition, and its various sub-definitions, will interest us most here. By 1580, a figurative definition of “to coin” had entered the language, meaning “to make, devise, produce.” Notably, the term had been used somewhat earlier (1561) in a specifically “bad or depreciatory sense: To fabricate, invent, make up (something specious, pretentious, or counterfeit).” And, shortly thereafter (by 1589), the term had been applied to language itself: “To frame or invent (a new word or phrase); usually implying deliberate purpose; and occasionally used depreciatively, as if the process were analogous to that of the counterfeiter.”

To summarize: in English, the verb “to coin” has always denoted a form of production or transformation. However, everyday language users have long disagreed over which element of coining to foreground: the act of production itself, the authority of the one executing the act, or the object being coined. When coining solely referred to currency, the earliest definitions took the coiner’s authority for granted. When it came to language, though, the term was first applied to counterfeits—or words produced without the proper authority—and this sense that words are often inappropriately coined would long endure. In refusing Gretchen’s capacity to coin “fetch,” then, Regina was following in a long tradition.

Now, the German language does not employ the same phrase to refer to the production of coins and the production of new words. Even so, Nietzsche closely associates those two processes in “On Truth and Lies in Non-Moral Terms,” and his analysis there suggests a linguistic reason for ceasing to attribute to Richard Dawkins what no longer belongs to him. Because the analysis that follows will become reasonably dense, I would outline its key claims in advance.

If you were to ask most people how words resemble coins, I suspect they would identify an analogy between a word’s meaning and coin’s value. While accurate, that analogy would only consider one side of a coin. As the OED definitions indicate (but do not theorize), and as cliché affirms, there are two sides to every coin. One, of course, denotes value, and the other indicates the authority of the one issuing the coin. Nietzsche’s analysis is equally concerned with that second, obverse side. From his perspective, the basic function of a word is to equate classes of separate but similar items. Fundamentally, a word needs to be transferred from one thing to the next, circulating out of the context of its original utterance. Thus, it needs to escape the authority or control of the one who coined it. In Nietzsche’s linguistic-phenomena-as-coins analogy, a word can only achieve its full value as a word when the side showing the monarch’s face is rubbed away. In the scheme of my own argument, as the word meme proved itself useful, equating similar though non-equivalent things, Richard Dawkins would inevitably find himself effaced. To make sense of these claims, let me turn now to Nietzsche’s text.

As opposed to many correspondence theories of truth, which posit a one-to-one relationship between words and things, Nietzsche does not believe that human knowledge corresponds directly to the phenomena it claims to know and master. From his perspective, that which will count as truth is derived from language, and particularly from figurative (rather than literal) forms. Between the thing-in-itself and the term assigned to it, “there is, at most, an aesthetic relation,” not a necessary, ontological one—“a suggestive transference, a stammering translation into a completely foreign tongue” (86). He therefore reasons, “The creator of language … only designates the relations of things to men, and for expressing these relations he lays hold of the boldest of metaphors” (82). Most people ignore the fundamentally metaphorical character of the terms they believe to be literal, though, and they fool themselves in doing so. “We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers,” Nietzsche laments, “and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities” (82-83).

Nietzsche rigorously insists on the uniqueness of individual phenomena. For him, “Juliet is the sun” would be a metaphor. But, to call two similar looking dogs “yorkies” is also a sort of metaphor, given that the two are not precisely identical in all respects—that is, they are not the same exact dog. I previously argued that it is less important to identify a strict, prescriptivist definition for what a meme is than to understand how memes come into being. Nietzsche likewise renounces stable, prescriptivist meanings and therefore invites his readers to “further consider the formation of concepts.” Within that analysis, he reasons,

Every word instantly becomes a concept precisely insofar as it is not supposed to serve as a reminder of the unique and entirely individual original experience to which it owes its origin; but rather, a word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases—which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether unequal. Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. (83)

All concepts are metaphorical, he reasons: “we obtain the concept . . . by overlooking what is individual and actual” (83). Or, to state matters differently, Nietzsche differentiates between what we might call words-as-such and words-as-concepts. The former category includes entirely singular, ad hoc utterances denoting one and only one very specific sense perception. To coin a word-as-such would entail something like what onomatopoeia means etymologically—the production of a new name for an unnamed thing. The category of words-as-such would therefore be limited to deictics or indexicals: this particular (thing commonly called a) rhododendron, this specific (thing commonly called a) creamsicle, this and only this (thing commonly called a) rooster. When someone applies that same word-as-such to any separate phenomenon, no matter how closely resemblant, it “instantly becomes a concept,” or a metaphor, equating unlike things. In this sense, we can understand the poet Robert Hass’s declaration that “a word is elegy to what it signifies”: a word can only meaningfully communicate [some aspect(s) of] a phenomenon to the extent that it denies that phenomenon its singularity. In becoming a concept or metaphor, a word marks the passing of the thing it references.

Within this Nietzschean framework, in which all concepts are inexorably metaphoric, to tell the truth is to use “the usual metaphors” or “to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone” (84). Truth, then, does not inhere to the nature of things, nor does it exist in the correspondence between words and their referents (because that correspondence is arbitrary and metaphorical). Rather, truth is a thoroughly social phenomenon, intensely implicated in social power dynamics: “that which shall count as ‘truth’” is “established” through the “legislation of language,” inasmuch as “a uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things” (81).

So then, to return to the matter from which we began: the connection between words and coins. Nietzsche writes,

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins. (84)

This passage restates several points we have just considered: “philosophical” truths are derived from rhetoric and/or poetics; they are socially constructed; most people ignore the metaphorical character of terms they take to be literal. I hope the foregoing analysis also clarifies Nietzsche’s claim that truths are “worn out” metaphors, “drained of sensuous force.” No word, inasmuch as it functions as a concept, can re-present or illuminate the individualized sensory experience to which it refers. A word can only ever denote a composite, something abstracted. When they become metaphors or concepts, words are no longer deictics; they no longer point to this thing alone. The this-ness of this thing, its being in toto, is by default incommunicable via language.

What, then, of the end of this passage? Here, truths are equated with metaphors, which are then metaphorically equated with coins (that are no longer coins). The first section of Jacques Derrida’s White Mythology is entitled, in its English translation, “On the Obverse” (6). Although, as its translator, F. C. T. Moore admits, that phrase might be more directly rendered as “On the Exergue” (5). In everyday parlance, the obverse side of the coins is its heads; its tails is also known as the reverse. “Exergue” has a slightly different inflection than “obverse.” It is, as Moore notes, “a word which in English as in French has a technical numismatic meaning (the part of the coin where the date, the engraver’s initials and so forth are inscribed)” (5). In “On the Obverse,” Derrida considers the “wear and tear” that inevitably flows from “usage,” even the usage of terms (6-7). In assessing “this notion of wear and tear,” Derrida admits to diagnosing a pre-existent tendency in other philosophical and popular texts, rather than offering a novel insight. As he notes, it “seems to be systematically connected with the metaphorical perspective.” And, he further affirms, “It is remarkable how insistently the metaphorical process is designated by the paradigm of coinage, of metal—gold and silver” (14). As J. Hillis Miller notes,

Money is a good metaphor of metaphor because both are instruments of exchange and of establishing false equivalences. Both in different ways exchange this for that or turn this into that by means of transfers based on conventional or fictional equivalencies, and there is much overlapping of rhetorical and economic terminology. (“Dismembering” 48)

We thus find connected metaphors, coins, and their wear and tear through usage.

When he turns to Nietzsche, Derrida offers his own translation of our key passage: “Truths are . . . worn out metaphors . . . coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal(15, emphasis in original). Thus, he focuses on a particular side of the coin—the obverse, the side showing the sovereign’s face—and highlights the fact that its inscription has been worn away. Notably, Derrida also begins his text’s next section with the sentence, “The obverse of the coin is effaced” (17). Clearly, this is a point we are not to miss. But, elusive as he often is, Derrida never quite explains it. Is it the engraver’s initials or the face of the sovereign that has been worn away? Each possibility would present a slightly different metaphorical resonance, although both would indicate an erasure of origins, of authorship.

In contrast, Miller affirms that it is the “king’s image” that has been worn away, and he eloquently explains the significance of that erasure (48). The value of money is generally attributed to one of two things: the value of the metal itself, as in nations upholding the “gold standard,” or the authority of “the image stamped on it.” In countries where the latter criterion predominates, Miller notes, “To indulge in coinage is treason”; it cannot help but amount to counterfeiting, “even if the coins are of full weight, since what counts is the issuing authority, not the object itself” (48). Indeed, even in the United States, a nation that has never had a monarch, authority over coinage is vested in the Executive Branch. The same organization that protects the President—the Secret Service—also investigates counterfeiters.

With these remarks in mind, let us return to Nietzsche once more. If one were to recount our central passage but translate it with the preceding remarks in mind, it would read:

Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost the image of the monarch (and/or the initials of the engraver) and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

As I read this passage, then, Nietzsche suggests that non-worn-out metaphors (what I have called words-as-such) are like freshly minted coins: they still bear the imprint of their originator and still carry one and only one meaning. In contrast, metaphors (i.e., words-as-concepts) that have become circulated inevitably lose their original, “sensuous force,” inasmuch as they are removed from their originators and the contexts of their origin. Once you apply the same term to multiple phenomena, it no longer denotes what it originally did. Instead, it denotes a generalized, composite version of things like that thing, an approximation. In that sense, worn-out metaphors no longer have the value that might have been ascribed to them initially—they are no longer coins. They are, in Nietzsche’s parlance, lies in non-moral terms, not truths.

Of course, some of us (myself included) would want to counter Nietzsche’s overall analysis. We—or should I say, I—might suggest that the value of words is precisely their ability to become concepts, to equate things that are not quite the same but that are still close enough, and thereby to allow us to develop concepts, to derive other concepts from them, and so forth. Personally, I appreciate that language allows us to know things. But, I still agree with Nietzsche about an important point vis-a-vis language: in the process of producing (socially constructed, linguistically mediated) truths, the monarch’s face is inevitably effaced. As words/concepts/truths circulate, they’re invariably detached from the contexts of their origin and from the authoritative control of their coiners. Indeed, no word ever really becomes a word, no concept a concept, no truth a truth without circulating beyond that origin. And in that way, the sovereign always fades, is always effaced.


In The History of Sexuality, Volume I, Michel Foucault argues, “In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king” (88-89). In similar fashion, I might suggest, we still have not effaced the monarch in citational patterns and attribution practices. Indeed, even after monarchs have been effaced, many scholars attempt to imprint their faces onto coins all over again. “Meme” doesn’t only—or even primarily—mean what Richard Dawkins meant by it. Still, years after he should have been effaced, internet meme scholars continue to cite Dawkins’s original use of “meme”—what should now be considered a closely related homonym, or a metaphor, rather than the same word. To be blunt: I do not think they should. Within their discourse, doing so produces more harm than good.

In over-privileging those who coin terms and deferring to them over what those terms mean or can mean, we forget that words cannot function as concepts until they’ve been applied beyond their original contexts and until other people use them. In the same way, internet memes aren’t really internet memes until other people circulate, modify, and re-circulate them. Even in Dawkins’s sense of the word, no one can create a meme alone; one always relies upon the others who repeat the action, or on the circulatory patterns of one’s public(s). But still we allow Richard Dawkins to stand onstage and claim that the meme concept has been “hijacked.” When we do so, we forget that all words have been hijacked, insofar as they count as words at all. Hijacking and counterfeiting are the costs of doing business with language. Those using the verb “to coin” four hundred and fifty years ago were right: all coinages start out as imposters; they gain currency (both value and a sense of temporal fit) as others use them anyway.

With all of that said, I am not attempting to argue for interpretive anarchy; I don’t think that anything can or should go with regard to what statements—or even words—mean. I think that insofar as one grounds one’s own argument in another person’s perspective, one should endeavor to understand that perspective as well as one is able to, rather than simply transforming the other into a version of the self. On an ethical plane, one might also acknowledge that some unassimilated remainder will always exist; understanding may never be “complete.” At the same time, I think that it’s counter-productive, even absurd, to think that nobody else should be allowed to use a word innovatively just because somebody else first used it in a constrained way. The rest of us always have the choice (though, certainly, some have more choice than others) to accept or reject that usage, to repeat it or allow it to disappear. We can allow the innovator’s face to remain on the coin at the cost of never using it, or we can take it up, circulate it, and slowly wipe their face away. Unlike most things in life, the trade-offs here are clear: those who coin words can keep their faces on them at the cost of the word’s circulation, or they can gain new words but find themselves effaced.

To be direct: I don’t particularly care about Richard Dawkins. This isn’t really about him. His contempt for Lolcats is merely a convenient, representative example, though one with incumbent but as yet unacknowledged ironies. Indeed, if I’m correct in my foregoing analysis, sooner rather than later, scholars would stop citing him to talk about internet memes anyway. Or, when they did cite him, they’d cite him differently— as many are already doing—recognizing that his meme coin doesn’t pass for currency in their own conversations. Regardless of his efforts, Dawkins’s meme is being turned into a different sort of coin altogether: intended for display, not use, like those US Mint commemorative silver dollars they sell on late-night infomercials for $19.95. The kind of coins you’d never even think to spend—simultaneously more expensive and yet less valuable than the figure stamped on them. Still, technically speaking, legal tender, but “not minted for general circulation” (“Commemoratives”).

If his face remains on those coins, I won’t object.

[i] In this text, I refer inclusively to “internet meme scholars.” Some of those I discuss here are institutionally located within the fields of rhetoric and/or composition, writing studies, or communication studies (e.g., Heidi E. Huntington, Eric S. Jenkins, Ryan Milner, Whitney Phillips, and Erika Sparby). Notably, a few recent master’s theses and dissertations have addressed or analyzed memes—including those by Jonathan Carter, Zhao Ding, and Taylor C. Lincoln—a possible sign that those fields are moving toward more meme analysis. However, some internet meme scholars hail from allied fields: communications, media studies, journalism, linguistics, and so forth. Thus, I envision this article as a means of “getting ahead of” a possible issue before it emergences or solidifies, of interrupting a meme before it stabilizes.

[ii] As Asaf Nissenbaum and Limor Shifman have shown, even though the users of /b/ remain largely anonymous (hence the name of the hacker collective Anonymous), group norms are still heavily policed, with veteran users shaping the conduct of new users, even urging them to “LURK MOAR,” that is, to observe how the board operates prior to engaging in its conversation (489).

[iii] If I understand Jenkins correctly, a mode is something that other phenomena pass into or circulate through (akin to a genre). The mode affects the meaning of those circulating objects (i.e., it prescribes a convention for interpreting them), but it is not co-extensive with those objects; it pre-exists them and persists beyond their passing.

[iv] This is not to say that, in order to communicate, communicants must share a language prior to the act of communication; following Donald Davidson and Thomas Kent, I thoroughly accept the externalist, paralogic argument that says they do not.