Monday, December 7, 2009

The First Snowclone

December 7, 2009, marks the first snowfall of the season. What better time than now to talk about the phenomenon that gave snowclones their name.

If you don't know, a snowclone is a type of fill-in-the-blank cliche based on a framework of a (usually) well-known phrase. Snowclones have generally become multi-purpose idioms that can be easily shaped to the task at hand. (To find out more about snowclones, and from bona fide linguists, check out some of the links at the end of this post.)

Some of my favorite snowclones are

  • This is your brain on X.
  • There's no crying in X!
  • What Would X Do?

My least favorite is "X and Y and Z, oh my!" simply because it is SOOOOO overused, and each person who uses it thinks they're being witty and original.

But anyway, in each of these snowclones, there's an X (and sometimes other stand-in letters) that gets filled with some other word or phrase. For example, if you Google "This is your brain on", you'll find results that talk about your brain on music, God, Kafka, neurotechnology, and Google. The instant recognition of this fill-in-the-blankedness, as well as the wide variety of forms that come out the other end, is what makes these phrasal structures snowclones.

Snowclones are so called because a couple honest-to-blog linguists (Geoffrey Pullum and Glen Whitman) were discussing arguments based on the supposed number of words that Eskimoes have for snow. If you've never heard the phrase "Eskimoes have N number of words for snow" (pick whatever number for N you want), then you've been living under a rock.

What's invalid (and ridiculous) about these arguments is that people have tried to use word counts to show how language reveals culture. In this case, they argue that Eskimoes have a lot of words for snow because snow is such a big part of their culture and daily life. From this first premise, they argue that either a) if a culture has a lot of words for a single phenomenon, then it must be an important part of the culture, or b) that if a particular phenomenon is really important to a culture, there ought to be a lot of words for it.

To thinking people, this is obviously a ridiculous argument. But if you buy into the argument, it can be a little scary. Think about what that would mean for American culture. What phenomena have we created the most words and phrases for?

Do you see where I'm headed? I'm headed to sex.

Take penises, for example. How many euphemisms, dysphemisms, and idioms can you think of that simply give a name to a penis? Some of them actually differentiate types of penises based on certain characteristics (e.g., third leg and pork sword vs. piddle and weeny), but the majority of them exist simply for the joy of sexual wordplay. Why talk about your penis when you can tell stories about your John Thomas, your wang, your schlong, your trouser snake, your joystick, your bayonet, your beaver cleaver, your pecker, your horn, your love shaft, your tally whacker, or your cock? The list is long, and always growing (rim shot).

Lists of "terms of endearment" for the female anatomy and for the act of copulation are likewise lengthy. My point is that, if you buy into the argument that word counts indicate culture, then you'll likely buy that American culture revolves around sex, and that Americans are thus oversexed monsters. Keep your children at home! Horny strangers are ready to poke the unsuspecting at any second!

Make your own arguments about how oversexed Americans are, but this is simply a bad argument. Eskimoes don't have an inordinate number of words for snow, and even if they did, it isn't a good basis for any arguments about culture.

If you want to find out more about snowclones, you can watch the birth of the word snowclone on Language Log. There's even a Snowclone Database online that logs and discusses the snowclones that people find. And finally, Marks Peters is cataloguing versions of the snowclone "X is the Y of Z" — where Y and Z don't have really have anything to do with each other — that he finds in the wild over at The Rosa Parks of Blogs.

I would ask what your favorite snowclone was, but I know that I'm more likely to get lists of euphemisms for sexual organs. Have at it.