Snowclone Is The New Cliché

"If I can claim no other accomplishment when I die, at least I'll have one neologism to my name!" --Glen Whitman, economics professor

Image: Dan Page

Modern folklore holds that Eskimos have a huge number of words related to snow, but it's just not true--they use no more such words than we do. Still, the factoid continues to spin off phrases on the general format of ”If Eskimos have N words for snow, X have Y words for Z.” For example, a 2003 article in The Economist declared, ”If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Germans have as many words for bureaucracy.” On his blog, Agoraphilia, Glen Whitman coined a snappy name for the category to which this formula belongs: the snowclone . Of course, he was punning on the snow cone, which is shaved ice flavored with syrup and carried in a paper cone. Other bloggers have since identified more members of this lexicographic species, and one of them, Erin Stevenson O'Connor, is compiling them at at http://snowclones.org.

Many snowclones are firmly entrenched in mainstream culture. For example, I'm not an X, but I play one on TV has been around for more than 20 years. It comes from a 1986 ad for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup, in which an actor said, ”I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Another example is In X, no one can hear you Y , which is based on the tagline of the 1979 movie Alien : ”In space, no one can hear you scream.”

However, some snowclones seem to be tailor-made for the technological world. A good example is I, for one, welcome our new X overlords . This snowclone is most often used ironically to indicate that one really isn't all that pleased that X has so much power but is resigned to the fact because nothing can be done about it. The original statement is ”I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords,” the now immortal words of a cartoon character in ”The Simpsons” from the 1994 episode ”Deep Space Homer.” Here are just a few examples of this snowclone from recent newspaper and magazine articles: ”I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords,” ”I, for one, welcome our new Microsoft overlords,” and ”I, for one, welcome our new Google overlords.”

A perennial favorite among both geeks and fashionistas is X is the new Y , the idea behind which is the belief that some new thing ”X” has become more popular than or has replaced some older thing ”Y.” The more specific locution X is the new black dominated the fashion world in the 1980s. Now the structure crops up everywhere (”40 is the new 30,” ”Knitting is the new yoga,” and on and on). On the tech side of things, fans of the open-source movement will often tell you that ”Open is the new closed,” and Apple marketed the iPod Shuffle by declaring that ”Random is the new order.”

The snowclone X and Y and Z, oh my! comes from the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz , where at one point in the action Dorothy, Tin Man, and Scarecrow chant ”Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” Computer book authors seem to love this snowclone, and examples aren't hard to come by: ”Collaboration and Wikis and Blogs, oh my!”; ”Lines and Transfers and Bits, oh my!”

If you use the X? We don't need no stinking X! snowclone, you're showing utter contempt for X (albeit usually in a mocking way). This cliché can be traced back to the 1935 book The Treasure of the Sierra Madre , but it didn't become popular until Mel Brooks's 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles , in which he included the following lines: ”Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!” In technology writing, probably the most common is the geek cry of ”Manual? We don't need no stinking manual!”

One of the most popular snowclones right now is I'm in ur X, Y-ing ur Z . This comes from a famous screenshot from a game of Starcraft that appeared in the forums of the Web site Something Awful. An inexperienced player was up against a veteran, and at one point the nOOb (as a gamer would call a newbie) lost track of the veteran player and asked where he was. His reply is the stuff of infamy: ”I'm in ur base, killing ur doods.” Endless variations on this theme are to be found, most enjoyably on sites with an lolcat --a cute picture of a cat to which someone has added a caption. The language used in these captions is worth an entire column. For our purposes, it's enough to know that many use the I'm in ur X, Y-ing ur Z format: ”I'm in ur fridge, eating ur foodz” or ”I'm in ur library, reading ur bOOks.”

About the Author

PAUL McFEDRIES, who writes our Technically Speaking column, is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases (http://www.wordspy.com).

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