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 that 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 economics professor 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 referring to the number of Eskimo words for snow and incorporates a pun on the snow cone.
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 Yupik) 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 that 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-ing while Y
The template "X-ing while black", and its original popular construction "driving while black", are sardonic plays on "driving while intoxicated", and refer to black people 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".
This has now been extended to other groups as "X-ing while Y", as in "flying while Muslim".
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 (around 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.
Have X, will travel
The earliest known literary mention of the template "Have X, will travel" is the title of the book Have Tux, Will Travel, a 1954 memoir by comedian Bob Hope. Hope explained that "Have tuxedo, will travel" was a stock phrase used in short advertisements placed by actors in Variety, indicating that the actor was "ready to go any place any time" and to be "dressed classy" upon arrival. The use of variations of this template by job seekers goes back considerably earlier, dating to at least the 1920s, possibly around 1900, in The Times of London.
Variants of the snowclone were used in the titles of the 1957 Western television show Have Gun – Will Travel, Robert A. Heinlein's 1958 novel Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Richard Berry's 1959 song Have Love, Will Travel, Bo Diddley's 1960 album Have Guitar Will Travel, The Three Stooges' 1959 film Have Rocket, Will Travel and Joe Perry's 2009 album Have Guitar, Will Travel.
X considered harmful
"X considered harmful", an established journalistic cliché since at least the mid-20th century, appears generally in the titles of articles as "a way for an editor to alert readers that the writer is going to be expressing negative opinions about X." As a snowclone, the template began to propagate significantly in the field of computer science in 1968. Its spread was prompted by a letter to the editor titled Go To Statement Considered Harmful, in which Edsger Dijkstra criticized the GOTO statement in computer programming. The editor of Communications of the ACM, Niklaus Wirth, was responsible for giving the letter its evocative title.
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 -opoli 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 -(o)poli, meaning 'city'. Examples of snowclone-like use of -opoli include Bancopoli (a financial scandal) and Calciopoli (a 2006 Italian football scandal).
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- 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 November 2, 2017.
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- Ragavan, Chitra (February 13, 2007). "Islamic Activists Ask, Is There a 'Flying While Muslim' Bias?". CBS News. Archived from the original on August 22, 2016. 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'...
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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…
- "have". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001. Retrieved January 10, 2018.
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- 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.
- Maier, Eleanor (August 16, 2012). "The 'gate' suffix – Gli scandali italiani: '-opoli'". Oxford English Dictionary (Blog). UK: Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on April 17, 2019.
- 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 October 24, 2016. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- "The word: Snowclone". New Scientist (2578). November 18, 2006. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
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