not the Xest Y in the Z

Here’s another “not too bright” snowclone. Y and Z here correspond pretty closely to the X and Y of “a few X short of a Y”:

Not the brightest light in the harbor
Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
Not the brightest crayon in the box
Not the quickest bunny in the forest
Not the quickest horse in the stable

“Not the sharpest knife in the drawer” alone seems to be fairly popular: it gets ~37,500 Google hits at time of writing. Like “a few X short”, this snowclone doesn’t seem to have an original referent, which makes it also a “strong” snowclone. It’s a cliche, an [American?] idiomatic expression, rather than an allusion to a phrase from a specific source.

This one is less flexible than “a few X short”, where the adjectival X is intended to correspond to mental agility, playing on the physical and mental senses of sharpness, brightness, and quickness.

[from Arnold Zwicky’s list at Unblogged Snowclones]

A few X short of a Y

There are many ways to say that a person isn’t very bright in English. This page lists many of these, including a number of variants on this snowclone:

A few screws short of a hardware store.
A few cards short of a deck.
A few fries short of a Happy Meal.
A few peas short of a casserole.
A few keys short of a keyboard.
A few sandwiches short of a picnic.

Y is something that contains a large enough number of X, that if “a few” are missing, it’ll slow the party down. If someone is “a few oranges short of a bushel,” they can still go to market, they just won’t be able to compete as well with the other orange sellers. I believe this metaphorical flexibility makes this snowclone an example of [what I am marking as] the strong definition of snowclone1, as it is more than a “playful allusion” to a particular expression. If there is an original referent for this phrase, I have not been able to locate it.

Mark Liberman discussed this “Snowclone of Foolishness” (or variant on “Full Deckisms“) back in July 2005, providing even more examples, and pointing out other variants on the pattern itself. Shy may appear in place of short (“A few straws shy of a bale”), and a number may appear in place of the a few quantifier (“three pickles short of a barrel”).

People seem to have a lot of fun with this expression, so I’d like to share a few more examples:

a few bananas short of a bushel
a few sprinkles short of a sundae
a few hosannas short of a miracle
a few smarties short of a lollybag
a few beers short of a barrel

1I swear, I will go back over the various discussions of what it means to be a snowclone and write them up, eventually.

that’s not an X; this is an X

Most people connect this with Dundee’s line in Crocodile Dundee (1986): “That’s not a knife; that’s a knife”, where he holds up a large bush knife to an attacker’s (mugger’s?) comparatively petite switchblade. Notice how we’ve changed the pronouns to be more contrastive, from “that” and “that” in the original to “that” and “this”. “This” brings the speaker and his X closer to the listener/reader. Even people intending to reference the movie directly remember it this way, perhaps because there’s something more natural about a that/this pairing in a contrastive statement than a that/that or this/this pairing.

Variants on X are many. My favorites in snowclone.pl’s top results include race, gun, helicopter, sandwich, hard drive, mullet, blog, and miniskirt. X is usually a tangible object: we want to be able to compare that X to this X and see that the latter is more impressive.

[Taken from the list at the “Unblogged Snowclones” on Language Log.]

X me no Xs

The earliest citation is c. 1595, per David Crystal in Words Words Words. Wikiquote provides a relatively long list of instances of this one in literature. X may be a word that can act as both noun and verb, as in Fielding’s “Petition me no petitions,” but may also be just a noun, as in Tennyson’s “Diamond me no diamonds!” The structure is apparently a strong enough–and iambic enough–idiom to appear multiple times in Henry Fielding’s and William Shakespeare’s works. Modern usage seems fairly tongue-in-cheek. X appears as daunt and quiesce. Most often, modern variants on this snowclone are actually quoting the older variants. I might even say that this is no longer a snowclone by the “strong” definition of the word (i.e., significant modern variation on the structure) because of the lack of variants on X.

Arnold Zwicky lists this in his “Unblogged Snowclones” Language Log post as “X me no Ys,” but snowclone-y variants with two variables are much less common (and/or difficult to track down).

don’t hate me because I’m Y

This seems have originated with this 1980s Pantene shampoo commercial: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” X variants from the web include superfly, childfree, nerdy, adorable. The idea in the original commercial was that you don’t need to envy someone for having quality X because you can attain X yourself. Modern variants often carry this meaning as well. Many instances are orthographic, phonetic, or morphological plays on the word beautiful itself: viewtiful, bootyful, bloggerful, indicating that most people are aware of the original referent when using this snowclone.

Some non-linguistic analysis of this commercial can be seen here, in the context of literature and metaphor, with “advertising as a form of religion.” I don’t want to stray too far from linguistic discussion to comment on this, but I would like to note that as a phrase becomes a cliche, as a snowclone is, its rhetorical strength can be bleached away. So while there may be moral undertones to the original advertisement, the modern snowclone is not necessarily advising readers to avoid the sin of envy, or judging the speaker for his X-ness.

[This snowclone was pulled from Arnold Zwicky’s list on the Unblogged Snowclones post at Language Log.]

added the Queue

There is now a link to “The Queue,” up there with “About the Snowclones Database.” 155 snowclones are currently waiting to be posted! I suppose that means at some point I’ll have to start posting more than one a week. Anyway, if you come across a possible snowclone, you can check there, and if you don’t see it, post it in a comment. (Note that the snowclones already blogged up to this point are NOT in the current list, so you’ll want to double-check those, too, before making a suggestion.) I’ve added the already-blogged snowclones to the queue, for completeness’ sake.

I’ve also added a link in the sidebar to The Tensor‘s groovy snowclone.pl script, with which you can get a count and a big list of instances of a given snowclone. Or at least, you can use it if you know what Perl and wget are, and can get them working on your computer. 🙂 I have recently found this useful when searching for snowclones that don’t have distinctively Google-able phrasing.

To X or not to X

c. 1600, from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “to be or not to be.”

This is a pretty big one. Google returns 13 million plus hits for it, and snowclone.pl gives 700+ different variations on X, including rent, file, cut, drink, teach, speak, grow, herd, cheat, certify, etc etc. The X slot is very flexible (it’s mainly limited to the class of verbs, but nouns appear in it too), which helps put variants of this snowclone nearly on the order of “X is the new Y”. Literature critics, sports writers, and teenage bloggers alike may employ it, because who doesn’t want to demonstrate familiarity with the Bard?

Hamlet’s original utterance is morose and philosophical, of course. You can’t get much more emo than pondering suicide, considering whether not “to be.” Since X is so semantically flexible, however, modern variants do not recall this feeling of overwhelming responsibility. Of course, a user of the snowclone may wax philosophical on subject X, anyway, depending on how Shakespearean he’s feeling.

This snowclone has migrated to German, as well, as reported by Emmanuel Dammerer: “X oder nicht X” shows landroller (scooter) and auslaufen (to leave or run out) in the X slot. I noticed a lot more reference to “the question” (“To or not to be: that is the question. / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…”) in the German instances than the English ones, interestingly, though this may reflect something of the nature of snowclone.pl’s output (it’s hard to rely only on Google results because “or not to” is such a vague phrase) as much as actual usage.

Edited to add: This snowclone was covered back in October 2005 on Language Log. Arnold Zwicky points out something that I try to keep in mind when considering the instances in print, that a “to X or not (to X)” statement may be a natural contrastive disjunction, and not intended to echo Shakespeare. E.g., in a sentence like “To debride or not to debride is dependent on accurate assessment of the wound and patient condition”, a reference to the Bard is not meant, so though it looks like a snowclone, it isn’t really one.

spotted in the wild: X is the new Y

At the moment my Flickr feed in the sidebar is not doing what I want it to, which is show images tagged with “snowclone.” (Not that there are many.) I’ve been meaning to nag my henchman about it, but in the meantime, this is a reminder that I welcome snowclone images! If you see (say) a billboard with (say) “I’m not an X, but I play one on TV” and you happen to have a camera on you, snap a photo and share it! You can post it in the comments of the relevant snowclone, or email it to me, and I will pass it on here. And of course, if you use Flickr, tag your snowclone images with snowclone so they will appear in the feed.

Here is one my friend Chris found while out and about:

snowcloning morphemes: Xcore; Xgate

Nancy Friedman at Away with Words recently posted mumblecore as word of the week, which made me realize that -core has the makings of a snowclone morpheme. Then AwW reader Dave Blake posted a link to some Wikipedia discussion of the affix, specifically in reference to its use in music:

The -core suffix is widespread in modern music. User Wikiman232 details 57 of them, including queercore, gothcore, mathcore (dissonant ‘noise rock’), metalcore (metal and punk), cuntcore (Vain Jane in 1997, to satirize ‘cock rock’), speedcore (superfast), and thugcore (hiphop and metal). He also lists 2 insult ‘-core’ names and 33 obscure names. (The others weren’t obscure?)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Wikiman232/List_of_music_genres_suffixed_-core

‘Mumblecore’ sounds like a breakthrough extension: I found no youth culture ‘-core’ neologisms outside of hardcore rock.

232 also notes record labels Bubblecore, Housecore Records, and Punkcore Records, and bands Bloodcore and Redcore.

Google also revealed to me discussion of grindcore and its connection to hardcore.

Hardcore is the original referent here, and since it is not a word that may only be applied to musical styles, I don’t think it’s accurate to call any non-musical instance of Xcore a “breakthrough extension.” When the -core affix is attached to a word, it is meant to apply the “militant, fiercely loyal” sense of hardcore to that word.

There is a reference to hard-core pornography dating to a Supreme Court discussion in 1964 at the Online Etymology Dictionary, and the first traced use of the word goes to 1951.

One interesting thing here is that -core has not undergone a complete semantic shift as the -gate of Watergate has done.1 -gate now has a sense of scandal, and no connection to the “door” type sense of gate. While -core is something of a truncation of hardcore, (just as -gate is a truncation of Watergate), it has not lost its “central, essential, enduring” sense.

So the case for Xcore and Xgate as snowclones, rather than regular old morphemes, is that they are meant to evoke the original words they were part of, hardcore and Watergate. Kirkgate and Highgate, for example, are not instances of the Xgate snowclone, because their -gate has only the “door” sense. (Though it should be noted that because they are (sur)names, they tend to be analyzed as single morphemes, rather than as a composition of their original morphemes.)

And it’s not only Americans who employ the -gate morpheme! Thanks to José San Martin for providing the Italian Laziogate and Brazilian Frangogate examples. Wikipedia also has a whole article just for a “List of scandals with [the] ‘-gate’ suffix.”

1 from Zwicky, A. M., and Spencer, A., ed. The Handbook of Morphology, 2001. p. 359.

I’m not an X, but I play one on TV

In 1986 The Young and the Restless star Peter Bergman said, in an ad for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” [See the ad on YouTube.] The statement seems to have been intended as a sort of legal disclaimer, a different way of saying, “Consult with your physician before using this product.” (According to poster starflyer on Everything2.com, they were required by federal authority to use the line.)

The modern usage seems intended to qualify the speaker as a non-expert at job X, but without completely removing him from the realm of credibility on subject X. If a writer puts this phrase in another speaker’s mouth, it is to give a sense that that speaker doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about. (E.g., “I’m not a leftist, but I play one on TV“.)

It is also possible to vary the second half of this sentence a little, as in “I’m not an linguist, nor do I play one on TV.”

I like how the story on this one cleaves directly to the original: “I’m not a Congressman, but I play one on TV“.

Other Xs on the web: programmer, lawyer, Christian, notes expert.

[Thanks to Mr. Verb today for the pointer inspiring me to write this post. I was feeling overwhelmed with the queue before that.]

Edited to add: This one was covered at some length on Language Log in October 2005. I have been remiss [again, argh] in checking in on snowclones there before posting there. Thoroughness turns out to be more time-consuming than I realized. Arnold Zwicky says “I am not a semanticist, though I play one at Language Log Plaza…”, which suggests that the “TV” slot may be its own variable. And the pronoun “I” can vary in the first half, at least; the second half is more fixed, as in “It’s not real news, but it plays one on TV” and “I’m not Russian, but I play one on TV”. Dr. Zwicky traces the history of the original utterance of the future snowclone through a couple of actors, including Peter Bergman, Chris Robinson and not Robert Young, AKA Marcus Welby, M.D. As far as Dr. Zwicky’s research and my YouTube searching can tell me, Robert Young did not say “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”, but he appeared in enough ads as a doctor, as well as elsewhere as himself, that people remembering the ad conflated his doctor with other advertisement doctors.