Re: I know one when I see one

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Thu 24 Oct 2002 - 14:51:27 GMT

  • Next message: Grant Callaghan: "Re: I know one when I see one"

    > > Words are not memes themselves because they can mean anything depending
    > > the circumstances in which they are received. They carry information but
    > > not the information being carried. The meanings they carry are arbitrary
    > > any word can stand for anything. For example:
    > >
    > > I am a man.
    > > I am A man.
    > > I am a MAN
    > > I AM a man.
    > >
    > > The mere shift in emphasis changes the sentence above so it transmits
    > > different meanings. The first emphasizes the word "I" and that points to
    > > is a man. The second emphasizes the word "A" and points to the fact that
    > > speaker is one of many men. The third emphasizes the word "man" and
    > > to the idea of manliness as part of the speaker's essence. The fourth,
    > > emphasizes the word "am" and is used to confirm that the speaker is
    > > man.
    >Okay, the sentences by way of different articulation carry different and
    >separate meanings. So each sentence could pass for a separate meme.
    >But the separate words still carry the same meaning, it is the shift
    >of emphasis that adds a unique semantic flavor to it. So each word,
    >having a unique conceptual meaning and which obviously can be replicated,
    >are memes in their own right still. I acknowledge, however, that some words
    >can have more than one meaning depending on the relevant context but that
    >doesn't change the fact that those words have stand-alone meaning and thus
    >are separate memetic carriers of information. You can experience this
    >yourself by teaching a new word
    >to a 5-year old.
    So what I'm saying is that the word or words are not the meme. It's the information or the combination of word + information that comprises the meme. The word is only a meme if it is used in a way that expresses the meme. If you are teaching a 5-year-old a new word, that word has a different meaning than if he already knows it. In context, "This is a book." carries a completely different meaning from, "Book me a room at the hotel." If you understood what I said, that usage of the word "book" must have gotten around. That's the memetic nature of the word and the meaning it carries in a particular circumstance being demonstrated.

    "Couch potato" used by a child to talk about his Mr. Potato Head is not the meme being expressed by the man who uses it to talk derisively about his brother-in-law. The meaning, and thus the information it carries, is different. It will be the cuteness of the words that cause the child's parents, siblings and friends to pick it up and talk about it. It's the wisecracking nature of the remark that will cause the adult's friends to pass it around. The child used it in one way and the adult used it in another. They each used it for a different purpose and for each it carried different information. But in both cases a meme gets passed around, even if it's not the same meme.

    The deeper I get into this, the more I wonder if it's not how we use words that makes them memes. A friend of mine gave someone a one-fingered salute once upon a time. The person he fingered gave it back to him but, as he held up his finger he rotated his hand back and forth. My friend felt like he had been bested in a contest of some sort. He brooded about it and later adopted that extra twist in his salute. They were acting out a meme that you can only insult your friends. You have to smile when you do it. It's a test of the friendship. If the person who received the insulting gesture gets angry, he's not a friend. It's part of the local culture but I encountered it both in high school and in the military.

    Now that I think of it, I found my wife doing it with her majong buddies over a game of majong. She wouldn't think of doing it to a stranger or someone not a close and tested friend. And they were doing it in Taiwanese.
      Later, when I returned to Taiwan to teach ESL, my wife's cousin asked me if I knew any Taiwanese. I told her I had only picked up the bad words from listening to my wife and her friends play majong. "Like what?" she asked. So I repeated one of the terms I had heard, smiling as I did so. "Mr. Callaghan," she replied, her face a bright color of red, "NEVER use those words in Taiwan again." I knew immediately that we weren't going to be buddies.

    So what a meme gets used for seems to be as much a part of its nature as the words or actions that carry it. The more I look at it, the more complex the meme is becoming.



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