Pride and Pedantry

“What’s a meme?”

I took my daughter to the birthday party of a 12-year-old friend yesterday, and hung around with the adults as the kids splashed in the pool.

After a round of Chuck Norris jokes with his dad (“When Chuck Norris goes into the water, he doesn’t get wet, the water gets Chuck Norrissed”), a teenager brought up the term “meme.” The birthday boy’s mom asked for a definition. The teen showed her an example of a meme, but didn’t quite come up with a definition. He clearly knew what it was, but just needed some time to articulate it.

Another adult offered to help, but the woman who asked the question — who is known as “The Child Whisperer” for her fantastic ability to engage with young people — waved off the help, saying, “Excuse me, but I asked this child.”

I was glad I hadn’t jumped in. A friend had kiddingly passed along a backhanded compliment he knew I would appreciate:  “When we tell your kids to stop being so pedantic, they actually know what pedantic means!” Already at the same party, I had conversed with various guests about Blender 3D, Monty Python, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, web hosting, and Burroughs’s Barsoom novels, and so figured I had already of used up my daily quota of nerdiness. I was content to sit back and listen.

The young man ended up giving a perfectly good explanation, but then The Child Whisperer — knowing my academic specialty — threw it over to me for confirmation.  I found myself saying, “In his book The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term to refer to the smallest unit of culture, modeled after ‘gene,’ which is the smallest unit of life. Just as there are genes for dark eyes or long legs, there are simple memes like ‘shave-and-a-haircut (two bits),’ and serious ones like, ‘you must bow to your king.'”

And then I took another bite of hot dog, and then the conversation drifted elsewhere.

Because I know next to nothing about sports, or music, or growing up in Pittsburgh (common backyard barbecue conversation topics around here), I was thrilled to hear a familiar topic arise organically. As dorkily pleased as I was to be able to rattle off the precise origin of the term, I was even prouder of my ability to keep my comment so brief.