(Drum roll.) For the very first time in Word Games history (more drums) . . . I bring you . . . (even more drums) . . . the inventor of the word!

I might as well have offered you Shakespeare on a plate. He's only got one word to his name, as far as I know, but it's a big one. You can't move for memes nowadays. The word was conceived by one man in one book - Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. And Dawkins, a former guest editor of this magazine, was available to discuss his creation: “The book was about the gene as the unit of natural selection. Genes that are successful become more numerous in the population; those that are unsuccessful don't. But natural selection is more general than that - it doesn't have to be genes. In principle, anything in the universe that has certain gene-like properties will do the job. If I'd known about computer viruses,
I would have used them.

“Instead, I used 'memes', which are the equivalent in the cultural environment. They're like a tune that you whistle, then you get it on the brain, then someone else hears it and gets in on the brain. Or when milk used to be delivered and the bottles had foil lids - blue tits and great tits learned to open the milk bottles. It spread like an epidemic. Or like a craze at school for things such as jacks and hula hoops - it would spread right through the school for a week or two and then die away. All I wanted to do was draw attention to how genes are
not the only things that have gene-like behaviour. What I was not trying to do was advance a theory of human culture - that would have been rather presumptuous."

(First things first: Dawkins and a hula hoop?) Like any good invention, you can't believe the word didn't exist before, so necessary, obvious and ubiquitous does it seem now. Meme has spread, meme-like, to encompass any kind of trend (take the Oscars red carpet headline: "Angelina's right leg: a meme is born"). As Dawkins points out, it's become shorthand for something "going viral". "I think that's fair enough," he says. "I'm quite pleased." Ah, the quiet pride of the wordsmith.

So, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Richard Dawkins - not just an atheist.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex