a reminder on the definition of snowclone

There have been a number of recent suggestions on The Queue that do not fit the definition of the term snowclone, so I thought it might be time to revisit what it means to be a snowclone.

A snowclone must be more than a common turn of phrase. Arnold Zwicky argues that to be a snowclone rather than a “playful allusion”, a user need not be aware of its origin when using it–that is, X and Y and Z, oh my! is not entirely a snowclone because we always know we’re calling up The Wizard of Oz when saying “Python and Perl and Ruby, oh my!” Contrast this with “untested code is the dark matter of software”, which meets all these criteria for snowclonehood:

the figure contributes some meaning of its own … you treat the expression as figurative, and the figure as meaningful;

In order to understand what this phrase means, you have to have some idea of what dark matter is and does, or at least of the relationship between untested code and software that makes untested code LIKE dark matter.

the figure has form as well as content;

To communicate what is contained in the “dark matter” phrase you might instead say, “Untested code can suck away the effectiveness of software and a disproportionate amount of the software developer’s time and energy down the line”.

this form is neither completely fixed (as in frozen idioms like “by and large”) nor subject to many variations … like many idioms, it has a lot of fixed stuff and some variable slots

We can variable-ize “X is the dark matter of Y” further to “X is the Y of Z”, but we can also say “untested code is to software as dark matter is to the universe” to enter the same snowclone world that the first phrase suggests.

you can use the figure without much thought; you get it “off the shelf”, and real creativity (even at the level of the pun) is not required;

I think this is another way to say it must be somewhat idiomatic and metaphorical. Here, untested code is not actually dark matter.

you can use the figure without any appreciation of its origin; in fact, for many snowclones the original model is hard to determine.

We have not determined who said the first X is the Y of Z, since not every instance of a phrase fitting into that template is a snowclone (e.g., “Joe Smith is the CEO of Acme Inc.”) and it is so very variable, searching for it in sources is difficult indeed. [I am more flexible with regard to this last requirement, mainly because I think it’s more interesting to find the earliest usage for these phrases than not.]

X and the Y of Z is not a snowclone, but some writers’ way of signaling that you may expect one of their books with a title of that form. For George R. R. Martin, it is A(n) X of Ys; for Sue Grafton, it is X is for X-word. A playful allusion to Harry Potter is certainly intended with Harry Potter and the King of Pop, but “Nancy Drew and The Case of the Disappearing Diamonds” is not referring to Harry Potter (and not just because it predates it :)). There is not really another way to express these phrases without summarizing the books they title, so the content requirement is not met.

The content requirement is a big one, and is the reason “my X days are over”, “X unplugged”, “Murder on X”, “X the Y”, “that old X of mine”, “a girl and her X”, and “how to X a Y” are not snowclones. These are not metaphorical and only marginally idiomatic. They are only common ways to title stories.


2 responses to “a reminder on the definition of snowclone

  1. Andy Barrette

    Based on this description, I’m not sure why you post “X2: Electric Boogaloo” as a snowclone. It doesn’t seem to make any sense independent of knowledge of the referred-to sequel, so it seems similar to the “X, Y, and Z, oh my!” example of a non-snowclone that you gave above.

    • It makes sense to me independent of the movie sequel: it just refers to a sequel in itself, albeit with a nonsense name. But I do think you’re right that its snowcloneness is rather dubious.

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