How do you pronounce 'meme'?

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Gemma CollinsImage source, Getty Images

Reality television star Gemma Collins has been roundly mocked online for mispronouncing the word "meme" - a term commonly used to describe a viral piece of internet culture. Where did she go wrong?

"Thank you for all the memes you've done for me this week," she told her fans in a video posted on Twitter. "Like OMG it's just gone off."

In the short clip, Collins, who originally gained fame on The Only Way Is Essex, pronounced the word "meme" as "may may". That prompted a wave of online mocking - even a jokey Gemma Collins Meme Appreciation Night on Facebook.

The correct way to say "meme", according to the Oxford English Dictionary and the BBC's Pronunciation Unit, is "meem" - not "may may" or "mee mee".

The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. In addition to defining the term, Dawkins also provided a handy tip on how to say it: "It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'."

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Dawkins defined memes as ideas that spread from brain to brain - a cultural analogue to genes which replicate and spread. The scientist invented the neologism by shortening the Greek word mimeme, meaning "something which is imitated".

"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches," he explained.

Dawkins refuses to use the term in its internet sense: an eye-catching picture, often with text, which spreads virally and is often altered to keep the joke or idea going as it zings its way around the web.

Image caption,
Lolcat memes like this one were among the first to spread virally on social media

But perhaps people were too hard on Gemma Collins. After all, "meme" is one of those words which, because of the rise of online culture, is more often written than spoken.

That quirk has caused pronunciation confusion around other internet terms as well. In 2013, the creator of the Gif graphics format insisted that his invention should be pronounced with a soft "g" - "jiff" rather than "giff".

Blog by Mike Wendling

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