The word meme was coined by the British scientist, Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, which he defined as "a unit of cultural transmission." Before Dawkins settled on the word meme, he considered using the word, mimeme, writing, "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.’ The root of the word, meaning to mime or mimic helps get to the core of what a meme is.
Memes are defined as, "an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation." The important part of this definition, "by nongenetic means", is what ties internet artifacts back to the writing of Richard Dawkins. In his book, The Selfish Gene, he explained how some animals evolve through imitating others, which influences natural selection. Now, tracking the first usage of the word 'meme' to an artifact of Internet culture, or more specifically an individual poster, is a tricky game but we know as the internet became a commercialized commodity in the '90s the usage of the word meme soon followed.
In layman's terms, a meme is a cultural aritfact (inside joke) that can be shared and recreated (mimicked) in nongenetic ways (images). Think about how many different types of memes there are. Dank memes, savage memes, wholesome memes, prequel memes, spooky memes, I mean the list goes on forever. Now all these individual categories have structure that can be used to create new memes, yet still, they adhere to the 'system' that they exist.
You're probably thinking, woah bro, pump the brakes, we get it! Big words and not quite obvious definitions, why make it complicated? Well, that's because people are complicated. Memes have been around for a lot longer than we think. And by using the definition above we can think about other 'nongenetic cultural artifacts' from the past that could fall into the category of a meme.
Imagine seeing a cart with a couple of these round boys going by, towing a wagon a grain or hay, and thinking, yoooo where did they get that and building your own. The wheel was mimicked and literally transported goods and ideas from one group to another group. That's a meme.
The spear meme, a sharpened rock on the end of a stick, has even been mimicked by monkeys. So when early-man and even our friend the neanderthal, saw each other throwing spears at deer you know they had to go and make one for themselves. That's a meme.
Besides the wheel, this might be the most obvious meme of old. The dude's entire life was lived sharing nongenetic information in hopes that what he preached would be mimicked and spread, nongenetically, through systems and cultures. And guess what, he's still popular today. That's a meme.
Now this one is too easy. Language, by its very nature, is a meme, as we defined above as, "an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation." That's a meme.
So the next time you throw a spear, ride in a car or share a meme, remember that nothing really makes any sense at all and we're all just hanging on for the ride.