X is the Y of Z

The metaphor processing that this snowclone induces is more complex than most: in order to understand any given instance, you have to know what Z is, have an idea of how X relates to Z, and what about Y is important enough to illustrate the relationship between X and Z. Mark Liberman calls this “conceptual universe” a key element of the snowclone in “Snowclones are the dark matter of journalism“:

X is the dark matter of Y is more than a fixed phrase or cliché. It’s a pointer to a little conceptual universe, bringing along with it a metaphorical framework that structures the surrounding chunk of discourse. If X is the dark matter of Y, then X is crucial to Y, is even the biggest part of Y, but it is not directly visible, and must be inferred because of the strong effects it has on visible things.

(I have been more flexible in my definition.)

So, if you know what Y is, but are not as familiar with X and Z, use of this snowclone may give you a better idea of what X and Z are. This helped me understand “Eric Raymond is the Margaret Mead of the Open Source movement”. I sort-of know who Eric Raymond is and what Open Source is about, but now I understand his role in OS better, because I know who Margaret Mead is. This helps demonstrate the “thoughtfulness” this snowclone requires both from its user and hearers.

Examples of this snowclone abound, but I have no idea where to start for an earliest instance, if such a thing even exists. The metaphorical flexibility of this snowclone makes it much less idiomatically fixed than many of the others I’ve written about so far, which means you can’t trace it back to a comedian or movie from which all other usage was inspired. Metaphor is everywhere. It’s also very difficult to track down examples of the snowclone versus plain statements of the “Thing1 is the Thing2 of Entity” form. “The perfect is the enemy of the good” is not a snowclone, nor is “Jupiter is the lord of the house of Death”.

Other Language Log posts which talk about this snowclone include X as the Y of Z” and “

10 responses to “X is the Y of Z

  1. As a major propagator of the Eric Raymond / Margaret Mead instantiation through my email signatures — about one-third of all Google hits for the two names also include my name — I feel I should write down some of the subtleties in this expression for the permanent record (hopefully).

    When Bruce Perens originally coined the expression, Eric had just made a splash via his talk and paper, “The Cathedral And The Bazaar”, which explicitly treated the customs of the hacker tribe as worthy objects of study from inside. So calling him “Margaret Mead” primarily meant that he was a participant observer, a hacker anthropologist manqué.

    Since then, however, the implicatures have varied over time and speaker. Sometimes “Margaret Mead” is taken to be not the Mead of _Coming of Age_, but the much later Mead of the talks and films. So to these people, “Margaret Mead” means “respected tribal elder”. To others, though, Mead’s work in Samoa is seen through the lens of Derek Freeman’s controversial debunking, and to those people “Margaret Mead” means “gullible, egotistical fool who saw what she wanted to see.” Perhaps as a result, Perens now disclaims the expression (though not the fact that he devised it).

    I remain on good terms, as far as I know, with all parties, and I get some considerable sardonic glee as a result of superposing all meanings simultaneously in my head.

  2. When Bruce Perens originally coined the expression, Eric had just made a splash via his talk and paper, “The Cathedral And The Bazaar”, which explicitly treated the customs of the hacker tribe as worthy objects of study from inside. So calling him “Margaret Mead” primarily meant that he was a participant observer, a hacker anthropologist manqué.

    This was the way I interpreted it, certainly.

    The change in connotation over time is a great illustration of that “metaphorical framework” the phrase sets up, too.

  3. Here’s my contribution: “Snowclones.org is the William Safire column of the Internet.”

  4. @GregW: Thank you, I think. 😉

  5. Not itself an origin, but somewhere in Douglas Hofstadter (perh. “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies” ?) has lots about this kind of analogizing.

  6. Pingback: En gengångare: den metaforiska mallen X är Z:s Y

  7. Brevity is the mother of wit!

    I’m DISAPPOINTED! : )

    When you said this would be a snowclone database it’s what I expected, and wanted! I think talking about it makes it less readable and boring.

    All you need to do is have each snowclone as a heading followed by a list of examples.

    Remember: Necessity is the mother of invention!

    Please do this!

  8. Pingback: Julholts framtid: en språklig prognos utifrån retoriska schabloner | På svenska

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