It's the year 1976. A young Oxford professor named Richard Dawkins writes a book on evolution called "The Selfish Gene".
This books presents a novel perspective: our genes are master replicators that have been replicating themselves from the beginning of life, and passing from one body to another through the process of reproduction.
Our bodies are just vessels for the genes to propagate themselves. Hence "selfish" gene.
In Chapter 10, Dawkins wonders if there are any other elements on our planet that may have the same replicating properties as the Gene. He writes:
I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.
The new soup is the soup of human culture.
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.
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.
Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.