Saturday, August 4, 2007

Living with memes

The song that all Indians grew up on, Jahan daal-daal par sone ki chirhiya karti hai basera or the catchy ad that says ‘do the dew’ or even the phrase ‘each one, teach one’ are all instances of ‘memes’. A meme is any little bit of language that is passed on from person to person, surviving the test of time. In the world of words, the survival of the fittest is the one convention that remains unchanged: only the fittest memes survive forever. ‘Meme’ is originally a word from the register of biology and it refers to ‘an element of a culture or system of behaviour that has been passed on from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially by imitation’. The word comes from the Greek language, where it exists as mimema, meaning ‘that which is imitated’. So, memes are word items that live on and, as the meme goes, imitation is the best form of flattery!

A very happy person is said to be on cloud nine. The meme ‘to be on cloud nine’ owes its existence to the US Weather Bureau that divides clouds into classes, numbering them for ease of reference. ‘Cloud nine’ is the cumulonimbus cloud; the cumulus cloud that develops to a vast height, with rounded masses of white vapour heaped one on the other, creating fanciful shapes. In other words, a favourite with imaginative and happy people.

Any knowledge received straight from a person whose word cannot be doubted is information straight from the horse’s mouth. The expression ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ comes from the world of horse racing. Since the age of a steed can be calculated by examining its lower jaw, horse racing aficionados never trust the word of the owner. The first permanent teeth appear at the age of two and a half; at three and a half appear the second pair; and between four and five, the third. So, when the truth can come straight from the horse’s mouth, why turn to other sources?

These are just two memes, look around you and list some more: our daily discourse is full of them.