my kingdom for a(n?) X

This is a relatively simple one that has been around for quite a while. “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” speaks the eponymous King Richard in desperation as the battle turns against him in William Shakespeare’s c. 1591 Richard III.

Modern usage of this snowclone is much more lighthearted–or so I judge from the variations of X, which include book, nap, glass of milk, whore, cake, couch, goat, calf, pun, loaf, cough drop, blu-ray burner, carder, and swashbuckler’s life, among many many others. The speaker may not have his X at the moment, but

So X is most commonly a physical object, to parallel the original horse, but it doesn’t have to be (nap, pun, brogue). I believe this snowclone is still closely tied to its origins, which is to say that users know it comes from Shakespeare, and that the original X is horse. A possible limitation on X is that it start with a consonant sound–so that we don’t get “my kingdom for an airplane”. All of my top results from a Google search and a search (which may or may not be enough information) confirm this. There doesn’t seem to be a limitation on the number of syllables X may have, even though the original would have been constrained by the iambic-pentametric form of the play’s verse.

This snowclone also appears in German (“mein Königreich für ein X”), with similar variation. Xs include Ladegerät (charger), Zimmer (room), Sonnenbrille (pair of sunglasses), Brücke (bridge), and Nacht (night). German speakers also generally know it comes from Shakespeare, and seem to place the consonantal constraint on the beginning of X.


X 2: Electric Boogaloo

This originates with the title of a 1984 film, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. It was the sequel to Breakin’, a B movie about breakdancing, and was received as one of the “25 Worst Sequels Ever Made”.

X variants [chosen semi-randomly from top Google results] include Five Iron Frenzy, baby geek, get me naked, tumblr meetup, and Obama girl. The general limitation on what may appear in the X slot seems to be that (1) there is an X (1) that predates X 2, and (2) the work as a sequel is not to be taken too seriously. The most popular instances are titles of real (music albums, YouTube videos) or fictional works of art. Wikipedia’s page on the film notes on this snowclone, “The implications [of this usage] vary, but tend to imply a sequel that is ridiculous, disappointing, formulaic, or simply obscure.” The phrase has a nice nearly-trochaic rhythm, which may help give this snowclone some ease of use/production.

Ben Zimmer wrote about this snowclone–and the nature of snowclones in general–on the Oxford University Press Blog in his “From A to Zimmer” feature last August.

there’s no crying in X!

This snowclone was popularized by Tom Hanks’ diatribe in the 1992 film A League of Their Own:

Jimmy Dugan: Evelyn, could you come here for a second? Which team do you play for?
Evelyn Gardner: Well, I’m a Peach.
Jimmy Dugan: Well I was just wonderin’ why you would throw home when we got a two-run lead. You let the tying run get on second base and we lost the lead because of you. Start using your head. That’s the lump that’s three feet above your ass.
[Evelyn starts to cry]
Jimmy Dugan: Are you crying? Are you crying? ARE YOU CRYING? There’s no crying! THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!
Doris Murphy: Why don’t you give her a break, Jimmy…
Jimmy Dugan: Oh, you zip it, Doris! Rogers Hornsby was my manager, and he called me a talking pile of pigshit. And that was when my parents drove all the way down from Michigan to see me play the game. And did I cry?
Evelyn Gardner: No, no, no.
Jimmy Dugan: Yeah! NO. And do you know why?
Evelyn Gardner: No…
Jimmy Dugan: Because there’s no crying in baseball. THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL! No crying!

(See the scene on YouTube.)

The “man’s world” metaphor implied by the original usage constrains what can occur in the X slot, at least popularly: it includes football, politics, the war room, poker, Survivor, jail, the boardroom, bodybuilding. (Non-manly variants are acceptable, just less common.) Emphasis following Hanks’ in the original quote is obligatory, and is usually minimally designated with an exclamation point.

A case can be made for a more general form of this snowclone, “there’s no Xing in Y!” Thus a defining characteristic of world Y is its lack of quality/behavior X: There’s no name-calling in debate! Instances of this form are more difficult to cite as snowclones: “there’s no touching the ball with your hands in soccer” would technically match the form, but is only a statement of the rules, not a reference to the indignity of ball-handling on the football field.

(give|bring) me your poor, your tired, your X

This phrase originated with Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem that has come to represent the voice of the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus“:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses
yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In the modern expression, give has become bring.

The huddled masses are still most common in this phrase, followed by criminal masses1, hungry, and then there a few variations that don’t quite fit the “immigrant” frame set up by this quote: old sewing machines [pdf], dirty bombs. So it would seem that variation in this snowclone is not as wide as in some of the others I’ve covered–the X really is mostly limited to the set of things (people) that can at the same time be described as “poor” and “tired”. This list of descriptors may not be as tangentially related to each other as X, Y and Z sometimes are in “X and Y and and Z, oh my!

1 Two snowclones for one on that blog post (the other being “we don’t need no stinking X!”), though I don’t recommend you click it.

the limerick

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to talk about the limerick, a snowclone which has a whole database devoted to its variants. Here is a good approximation of the de-specified form of the limerick:

There once was an X from place B,
That satisfied predicate P,
He or she did thing A,
In an adjective way,
Resulting in circumstance C.

According to Wikipedia, there is no strict requirement that a limerick adhere to this form; that is, while “Hickory Dickory Dock”1 does not fill the above template, it is still technically a limerick. This kind of variation illustrates how the limerick as such isn’t a snowclone, any more than a haiku is a snowclone–restrictions on the number of lines and the rhythm or rhyme of a poem do not a snowclone make. That this template could be devised in the first place is what satisfies my requirements for snowclone-hood.

Edward Lear popularized this form in his 1845 Book of Nonsense, with such entries as:

There was an Old Derry down Derry,
who loved to see little folks merry;
So he made them a book,
and with laughter they shook
at the fun of that Derry down Derry.

Limerick-writing seems to be quite the alive-and-well pasttime, if this database is any indication. Here are some more from “the top 150” there:

This one needs context:

There once was a man named Bertold
Who drank beer when the weather grew cold
As he reached for his cup…
Oh, snap! You just got limerickrolled!

I’ve now been disabused of the notion that the modern limerick has a bawdiness requirement, but I like how this one is suggestive:

There once was a maid from Madras
Who had a magnificent ass.
Not rounded and pink,
as you’d possibly think;
It was gray, had long ears, and ate grass.


Hickere, Dickere Dock,
A Mouse ran up the Clock,

The Clock Struck One,
The Mouse fell down,

And Hickere Dickere Dock.

these are not the X you’re looking for

This snowclone comes from dialogue in the 1977 film Star Wars:

Stormtrooper: Let me see your identification.
Obi-Wan: [with a small wave of his hand] You don’t need to see his identification.
Stormtrooper: We don’t need to see his identification.
Obi-Wan: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
Stormtrooper: These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.
Obi-Wan: He can go about his business.
Stormtrooper: You can go about your business.
Obi-Wan: Move along.
Stormtrooper: Move along… move along.

Obi-Wan draws attention away from the wanted-by-the-Empire droids traveling with him with a Jedi mind trick. In some cases, this snowclone is used as an error message (“these are not the files you’re looking for”) and sometimes it’s a direct reference to someone’s attempt to wave away another person’s curiosity. Users of this snowclone tend to stick to the geeky realm that a Star Wars reference still connotes. Variants on X include druids1, files, droods2, wavebands, Macbook Pros, Usenets and illegals and beers. X tends to be physical, but I don’t think tangibility is obligatory. That is, “these are not the philosophies you’re looking for” is not entirely unacceptable, under the right circumstances.

I’m not sure why the uncontracted “are not” has become the commoner form on the original “aren’t” [the top results for the “aren’t” form are direct quotes from the film]; perhaps it’s our association of a more formal mode of speech with the Jedi style embodied by Sir Alec Guinness.
1, 2The more I look around, the more I think these are typos or Cupertino-isms. The two contexts I’ve seen druids in don’t have any other reference to, y’know, druids. So maybe druids isn’t a valid example of X. But it COULD be.

X is hard, let’s go shopping

This dates back to 1992, when Mattel put out Teen Talk Barbie, whose programmed phrases included “Math class is tough” and “Want to go shopping? Okay, meet me at the mall”. A lot of media attention was given to the negative response the gender stereotype the two phrases illustrated. Ben Zimmer detailed the development of this snowclone on Language Log in March 2006, noting that the Usenet group soc.mtss
made extensive use of it.

Variants of X (as of a Google search today) include i830, irony, dialogue, science, neuroscience, and data synchronization. I find it intriguing that all of these things really are hard in the right context. (Ask a writer whether dialogue is hard!) I know science can be hard to explain to people who don’t understand the scientific method. Many of these snowclones seem intended to open discussion on what actually makes X difficult, using the snowclone to signal that the user is not taking himself too seriously. I am not sure if this is necessarily the prevailing intention of modern users of the snowclone, but it is interesting to note.

So lots of things can fill the X slot; there isn’t a semantic limitation that I can see, other than possibly the aforementioned things-that-are-actually-difficult.

Another Language Log post by Ben Zimmer on this snowclone can be found here.