A snowclone is a cliché and phrasal template that can be used and recognized in multiple variants. The term was coined as a neologism in 2004, derived from journalistic clichés which referred to the number of Eskimo words for snow.
History and derivation
The linguistic phenomenon of "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants" was originally described by linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum in 2003. Pullum later described snowclones as "some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists."
In an October 2003 post on Language Log, a collaborative blog by several linguistics professors, Pullum solicited ideas for what the then-unnamed phenomenon should be called. In response to the request, the word "snowclone" was coined by Glen Whitman on January 15, 2004, and Pullum endorsed it as a term of art the next day. The term was derived by Whitman from journalistic clichés which referred to the number of Eskimo words for snow, and incorporates a pun on the snow cone (a paper cone of shaved ice flavored with syrup).
Snowclones are related to both memes and clichés, according to the Los Angeles Times's David Sarno: "Snowclones are memechés, if you will: meme-ified clichés with the operative words removed, leaving spaces for you or the masses to Mad Lib their own versions."
Eskimo words for snow
Pullum, in his first discussion of what would later be called a snowclone, offered the following example of a template describing multiple variations of a journalistic cliché he had encountered: "If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have M words for Y." Pullum cited this as a popular rhetorical trope used by journalists to imply that cultural group X has reason to spend a great deal of time thinking about the specific idea Y, although the basic premise (that Eskimos have a larger number of words for snow) is often disputed by those who study "Eskimo" (Inuit and Aleut) languages.
In 2003, an article in The Economist stated, "If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Germans have as many for bureaucracy." A similar construction in the Edmonton Sun in 2007 claimed that "auto manufacturers have 100 words for beige".
In space, no one can X
The original request from Geoffrey Pullum, in addition to citing the Eskimos-and-snow namesake of the term snowclone, mentioned a poster slogan for the 1979 film Alien, "In space, no one can hear you scream", which was cloned into numerous variations, such as "In space, no one can see your breasts".
X is the new Y
Frequently-seen snowclones include phrases in the form of the template "X is the new Y". The original (and still common) form is the template "X is the new black", apparently based on a misquotation of Diana Vreeland's 1962 statement that pink is "the navy blue of India". According to language columnist Nathan Bierma, this snowclone provides "a tidy and catchy way of conveying an increase, or change in nature, or change in function – or all three – of X."
Examples include a 2001 album titled Quiet Is the New Loud, a 2008 newspaper headline that stated "Comedy is the new rock 'n' roll", and the title of the 2010 book and 2013 Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black.
The mother of all X
"The mother of all X", a hyperbole which has been used to refer to something as "great" or "the greatest of its kind", became a popular snowclone template in the 1990s. The phrase entered American popular culture in September 1990 at the outset of the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council warned the U.S.-led Coalition against military action in Kuwait with the statement "Let everyone understand that this battle is going to become the mother of all battles." The phrase was repeated in a January 1991 speech by Saddam Hussein. A calque from Arabic, the snowclone gained popularity in the media and was adapted for phrases such as "the mother of all bombs" and New Zealand's "Mother of all Budgets". The American Dialect Society declared "the mother of all" the 1991 Word of the Year. The term "Father of All Bombs" was created by an analogy.
The Arabic phrase originated from an Arab victory over the Sassanian Persians in 636 AD, described with the earliest known use of the phrase "mother of all battles" (Arabic: ام المعارك umm al-ma‘ārik). Although popularly used simply to mean "greatest" or "ultimate", the Arabic umm al- prefix creates a figurative phrase in which "mother" also suggests that the referent will give rise to many more of its kind. The phrase was used in the naming of a mosque in Baghdad, the Umm al-Ma'arik Mosque.
X while Y
The template "X while black", and its original popular construction "driving while black", were derived from wordplay on driving while intoxicated, and referred to blacks being pulled over by police because of racial profiling. A prominent variant, "voting while black", surfaced during the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, in reference to attempts to suppress black votes. Snowclones of this form, highlighting unequal treatment of black people, have included "walking while black" for pedestrian offenses, "learning while black" for students in schools, "drawing while black" for artists, and "shopping while black" or "eating while black" for customers in stores and restaurants. A 2017 legal case prompted the variant "talking while black".
A more generalized form of this snowclone, "X while Y", has been used for other groups that are purportedly targeted for unequal treatment, as in the examples "flying while Muslim" and "breathing while Republican".
To X or not to X
"To X or not to X" is a template based on the line "To be, or not to be", spoken by the titular character in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet (c. 1600). This template appears to have existed even prior to Hamlet, and had previously been used specifically in a religious context to discuss "actions that are at once contradictory and indifferent—actions that, because they are neither commanded nor prohibited by Scripture, good nor evil in themselves, Christians are free to perform or omit."
In general usage, "to X or not to X" simply conveys "disjunction between contradictory alternatives", which linguist Arnold Zwicky described as an "utterly ordinary structure." A Google search by Zwicky for snowclones of the form "to * or not to *" resulted in over 16 million hits, although some apparent occurrences may be cases of a natural contrastive disjunction unrelated to the Shakespearean snowclone template.
In 1995, linguist David Crystal referred to this kind of trope as a "catch structure", citing as an example the phrase "to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before", as originally used in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series (1978). The phrase references Star Trek ("... to boldly go where no man has gone before"), humorously highlighting the use of a split infinitive as an intentional violation of a disputed traditional rule of grammar.
In the study of folklore, the related concept of a proverbial phrase has a long history of description and analysis. There are many kinds of such wordplay, as described in a variety of studies of written and oral sources.
X-gate and similar suffixes
The appending of the -gate suffix to words to denote a scandal (which originates from the Watergate scandal that brought down the U.S. presidency of Richard Nixon) has also been referred to as a snowclone. However, Geoffrey Pullum, the linguistics professor who originally defined the term snowclone, states that "X-gate" is only a "lexical word-formation analog of it, an extension of the concept from syntax into derivational morphology".
Like the -gate suffix, the Italian -poli suffix emerged in Italian media from investigations in the 1990s that uncovered a system known as Tangentopoli. The term derives from tangente, which means kickback (e.g., bribery given for public works contracts), and poli, meaning city. Examples of snowclone-like use of -poli include Bancopoli (a financial scandal) and Calciopoli (a 2006 Italian football scandal).
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. (January 16, 2004). "Snowclones: lexicographical dating to the second". Language Log. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. (October 27, 2003). "Phrases for lazy writers in kit form". Language Log. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- McFedries, Paul (February 2008). "Snowclone Is the New Cliché". IEEE Spectrum. Archived from the original on 2016-09-14. Retrieved February 21, 2008.
- Abley, Mark (2008). The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-618-57122-2.
- Sarno, David (August 6, 2008). "Web Scout: The snowclone". Los Angeles Times Blog. Archived from the original on October 26, 2012..
- Liberman, Mark (June 18, 2005). "Etymology as argument". Language Log. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. (October 21, 2003). "Bleached conditionals". Language Log. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- Cichocki, Piotr; Kilarski, Marcin (2010). "On 'Eskimo Words for Snow': The Life Cycle of a Linguistic Misconception" (PDF). Historiographia Linguistica. John Benjamins Publishing. 37 (3): 341–377. Archived from the original on July 29, 2017. Retrieved November 2, 2017.
- "Germany's bureaucracy – Breathe or be strangled: The government declares war on red tape—and may win a skirmish or two". The Economist. October 9, 2003. Archived from the original on March 28, 2017. Retrieved November 2, 2017.
- McFedries, Paul (2008). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weird Word Origins. Penguin Books. ISBN 9781101217184. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
- Zimmer, Benjamin (December 28, 2006). "On the trail of 'the new black' (and 'the navy blue')". Language Log. Archived from the original on March 23, 2017.
- Peters, Mark (July–August 2006). "Not Your Father's Cliché". Columbia Journalism Review. Archived from the original on December 22, 2007. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- Jupitus, Phill (June 2, 2008). "Comedy is the new rock 'n' roll (again)". Times Online. London: The Times. Retrieved September 14, 2009.
- Ratcliffe, Susan (2010). Oxford Dictionary of Quotations by Subject. Oxford University Press. p. 219. ISBN 9780199567065.
- Cowell, Alan (September 22, 1990). "Confrontation in the Gulf: Leaders Bluntly Prime Iraq for 'Mother of All Battles'". The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 14, 2017.
- Atkinson, Rick; Broder, David S. (January 17, 1991). "U.S., Allies Launch Massive Air War Against Targets in Iraq and Kuwait". Washington Post. p. A01. Archived from the original on June 14, 2017.
- "All of the Words of the Year, 1990 to Present". American Dialect Society. 2015. Archived from the original on June 12, 2017.
- Safire, William. Safire's Political Dictionary. Oxford University Press. p. 439. ISBN 9780195343342. Retrieved April 15, 2017.
- Dickson, Paul. War Slang: American Fighting Words & Phrases Since the Civil War, (3rd ed.). Courier Corporation. p. 317. ISBN 9780486797168. Retrieved April 15, 2017.
- Savan, Leslie (2006). Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Pop Language in Your Life, the Media, and, Like... Whatever. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 58–59. ISBN 978-0-375-70242-6.
- Balkisson, Kamaria (November 2017). "Digital Arts: Uncaped Crusaders". The Africa Report. Paris: Groupe Jeune Afrique. Archived from the original on 2017-10-27. Retrieved October 31, 2017.
- Coolican, J. Patrick (November 21, 2003). "Chief vows to root out profiling by Patrol". Seattle Times. Archived from the original on 2016-05-31.
- Mosedale, Mike (February 28, 2007). "Critics say a Minneapolis law criminalizes walking while black: What Lurks Beneath?". City Pages. 28 (1369). Archived from the original on 2008-04-01.
- Morse, Jodie (June 5, 2002). "Learning While Black". Time. Archived from the original on 2016-03-13.
- Harris, Anne-Marie G. (2003). "Shopping While Black: Applying 42 U.S.C. § 1981 to Cases of Consumer Racial Profiling". Boston College Third World Law Journal (PDF). 23 (1). Archived from the original on 2017-11-02.
- Norman, Anna (March 23, 2009). "'Shopping While Black': Would You Stop Racism?". ABC News. Archived from the original on 2017-11-02.
- Baron, Dennis (November 4, 2017). "Miranda and the Louisiana Lawyer Dog: A case of talking while black". The Web of Language. Archived from the original on November 5, 2017. Retrieved November 5, 2017.
- Ragavan, Chitra (February 13, 2007). "Islamic Activists Ask, Is There a 'Flying While Muslim' Bias?". CBS News. Archived from the original on 2016-08-22. Retrieved November 2, 2017.
There's a new term of art, 'Flying While Muslim' ... intended to draw parallels to the American phenomenon known as 'driving while black'...
- Zwicky, Arnold (October 25, 2005). "To Snowclone or Not to Snowclone". Language Log. Retrieved November 8, 2010.
- Shore, Daniel (Summer 2015). "Shakespeare's Constructicon" (PDF). Shakespeare Quarterly. 66 (2): 129–132. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-11-03.
In its most general use, to X or not to X denotes the disjunction between contradictory alternatives. But the form also acquired a more specific function in the Reformation discourse of Christian liberty… Though discussions of this sort occurred most frequently in theological writings, Elizabethan parishioners attending services each week would have likely heard preachers fill to X or not to X with a variety of verbs…
- Crystal, David (1995). The Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 178.
- See Fowler, H. W.; Gowers, Ernest (1965). "Split infinitive". A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
- Loomis, C. Grant (1964). "Proverbial Phrases in Journalistic Wordplay". Western Folklore. 23 (3): 187–189.
- Marsh, David (February 1, 2010). "Mind your language". The Guardian. Retrieved June 21, 2017.
All these gates are examples of a snowclone, a type of cliched phrase defined by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum as 'a multi-use, customisable, instantly recognisable, timeworn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants'. Examples of a typical snowclone are: grey is the new black, comedy is the new rock'n'roll, Barnsley is the new Naples, and so on.
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. (February 2, 2010). "Snowclonegate". Retrieved June 21, 2017.
Xgate as a snowclone? Not quite. I see the conceptual similarity, but the very words he quotes show that I originally defined the concept (in this post) as a phrase or sentence template. The Xgate frame is a lexical word-formation analog of it, an extension of the concept from syntax into derivational morphology.
- Koff, Stephen P. (2002). Italy: From the 1st to the 2nd Republic. Routledge. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-203-00536-1.
- Barrett, Grant; Pullum, Geoffrey; Barnette, Martha (June 28, 2006). "How the Web Is Changing Language". Talk of the Nation (Interview). Neal Conan. National Public Radio. Archived from the original on 2016-10-24. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- "The word: Snowclone". New Scientist (2578). November 18, 2006. Retrieved November 25, 2007. (Subscription required (. ))
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