Snowclone is a cliché and phrasal template originally defined as "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". The term was coined as a neologism in 2004, described as "some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists." It was derived from journalistic clichés which referred to the number of Eskimo words for snow.
In October 2003, linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum described the phenomenon in a post on Language Log, a collaborative blog by several linguistics professors, and solicited ideas for what the 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 has since been adopted by other linguists, journalists, and authors.
Eskimo words for snow
The term "snowclone" alludes to one of Pullum's example template phrases:
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 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 statement 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
A frequently-seen example of a snowclone is a phrase in the form of the template "X is the new Y," in which X and Y are replaced with different words or phrases. An earlier form was the template "X is the new black," based on an apparent misquotation of Diana Vreeland's 1962 statement that pink is "the navy blue of India." 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
A well-known snowclone is the phrase "the mother of all X," a superlative which has often been used to refer to something as "great" or "the greatest of its kind." 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 budgets" or "the mother of all bombs". 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 birth to many more of its kind. The phrase was used in the naming of a mosque in Baghdad, the Umm al-Ma'arik Mosque.
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' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series (1978). Adams' phrase references Star Trek ("...to boldly go where no man has gone before") to humorously highlight the use of a split infinitive as an intentional violation of a disputed traditional rule of grammar.
Snowclones are related to both memes and clichés, according to the Los Angeles Times' 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."
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.
"-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 Nixon Presidency) has also been referred to as a snowclone. However, Geoffrey Pullum, the linguistics professor who originally defined the term snowclone states that Xgate 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 the "-poli" snowclone 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.
- Abley, Mark (2008). The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-618-57122-2.
- McFedries, Paul (February 2008). "Snowclone Is the New Cliché". IEEE Spectrum. Retrieved February 21, 2008.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, Third Edition. Courier Corporation. p. 317. ISBN 9780486797168. Retrieved April 15, 2017.
- 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 and New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sarno, David (August 6, 2008), "The snowclone", Web Scout, Los Angeles Times.
- Loomis, C. Grant (1964). "Proverbial Phrases in Journalistic Wordplay". Western Folklore. 23 (3): 187–f89.
- Marsh, David (February 1, 2010). "Mind your language". 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.
- Stephen P. Koff (2002). Italy: From the 1st to the 2nd Republic. Routledge. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-203-00536-1.
- "How the Web Is Changing Language". NPR Talk of the Nation. June 28, 2006. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- 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.
- "The word: Snowclone". New Scientist (2578). November 18, 2006. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- Smith, Russell (May 31, 2007). "Do you speak kitteh?". Toronto: The Globe and Mail. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- Vaszily, Scott (August 4, 2007). "Colourful language (letter)". New Scientist (2615). Retrieved November 25, 2007.
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