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?)

‘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, 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.

I am X, hear me Y

I am taking advantage of Mark Liberman’s legwork on this one today.

In Helen Reddy‘s 1972 song “I am Woman,” she says, “I am woman, hear me roar.”

X is still most often woman, calling up the feminist yell of the song, and the verb Y varies along roar‘s semantic spectrum, at least in the sense of noises you can make with your mouth: bitch and moan, despair, blubber, expound, meow, whine, moo, whimper, laugh, sing, scream, rhyme, sing torch & twang, purr. Y may also rhyme with roar but have little or no semantic relation: bore, snore, tour (well, in some dialects), soar, whore, pour, war.

Y does not seem to have restrictions limiting it to semantic or phonological similarity to the original, however. Shop, rock, walk, set off the airport security detector, kick ass, meme, campaign, run, ramble, click, stab, game, blend, draw, caulk, blog, and shoot also appear in this snowclone on the web.

When X varies, it seems to most often be a name, as we might expect with a statement that starts with “I am”: Peter, worm, GeekGirl, Justin Bonomo, Boobalicious, Kittenwar, protoplasm, Naturezilla, Superwoman, Catwoman, Hobbes, geek, blogger, Monki, Lizmonster, Hellionexciter, lion, mommy, milquetoast, Corolla, Gibbon.

I was aware of this snowclone before I knew it came from a song. I wonder if others who use it–particularly those who use it without any reference to being woman or roaring–are also not aware of the song. Snowclones seem to break free of their original referents to varying degrees; I’d be interested to see if there’s any pattern. It doesn’t seem to be only the passing of time that separates a snowclone’s usage from its origin. For example, everyone I’ve asked about “X and Y and Z, oh my!” knows it refers to The Wizard of Oz, even though the movie is almost 70 years old. This probably says as much about the ubiquity of this particular film as it does about the constraints or lack thereof on the snowclone. There’s probably a generational difference in people’s awareness of the origin of “I am X, hear me Y” just as there is with “X? We don’t need no stinking X!”

(Dammit Jim,) I’m an X, not a Y!

c. 1966-1969 [and later; this expression appears in several Star Trek shows and films], Dr. McCoy in Star Trek to the erstwhile Captain Kirk: “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a(n) {engineer, mechanic, bricklayer}!” This one is somewhat unique in that it started out as a snowclone, where Bones altered the Y as it fit the situation. I think the exclamation point is obligatory, to further separate X from Y: not only is McCoy not a bricklayer, it is absurd to consider him one. The exclamation point–or intonation mimicking the original, when spoken–is also necessary to evoke the original usage, rather than a simple comparison of two unlike things. X and Y should be semantically distinct from each other, but sometimes the difference between them is subtle for the sake of humor.

Other variations seen on the web:
“I’m an ingenieur, NOT a bloody locomotive driver!”
“I’m an architect, not a project manager!”
I’m an accountant not a magician!

X? We don’t need no stinkin’ X

The furthest this quote can be traced back is to the 1935 book The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but the snowclone entered the wider world via 1974’s Blazing Saddles, which in turn is a reference to the 1948 Humphrey Bogart film (based on the book) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Badges show up in all three quotes:


Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges…


Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.


Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges.

In subsequent movie and TV references, X is most often “badges,” but usage elsewhere reveals a variety of plural and singular nouns in the X slot: login, cookies, recount, silos.

This snowclone is used when the writer wants to express contempt or mock contempt for someone asking for X.

Pronunciation of “stinking” also seems to be an important element of this snowclone. The original speaker being Mexican, and thus apparently a non-native speaker of English, was a salient piece of information to snowcloners, and again the relationship to the original quote is strengthened by use of that pronunciation. That or they equate his non-standard English with the casualness of conversation they want the snowclone to carry. So [as Arnold Zwicky noted in comments] steenkin, stinkin, and stinking are all possible variants.

[Edited to add quotes from all three sources, after David Craig provided a link to the original movie vector of the snowclone. Thanks, David!]

[Edit 2: I forgot to add the link for a much earlier and better discussion of this snowclone, at Subjunctivitis.]

have X will travel

1954 was the earliest attestation I could find, but it probably goes back further. The expression was popularized first by Bob Hope’s 1954 biography Have Tux, Will Travel and then by 1950s TV (and radio) show “Have Gun–Will Travel.” The title of Robert Heinlein’s 1958 Have Spacesuit, Will Travel was taken from the show.

Variations of X: music (seen on a shopfront in my hometown), laptop, children, fingers. I think singular nouns are more common than plural nouns in the X slot.

Thanks to commentator mollymooly for the earlier reference.

Save an X, ride a Y

Origin unknown. Lately popularized by the country band Big & Rich’s 2004 “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)”. This is a popular one for bumper stickers and license plate frames. X is things a person can be said to ride, and Y is the canonical rider of X, so variations on this snowclone tend to sporting themes and sexual innuendo.

Other variations spotted in the wild: Save a wave, ride a surfer; save a sidewalk ride a skater; and my favorite from Harry Potter fandom: Save a broom, ride a Quidditch player.

The sporting theme can also be seen in [the as yet unposted-about] “Give blood, play X” snowclone.

[Edited to add: “Save an X, Y a Z” is also a possible variation, as Lance Fisher reminded me. The example he gives is “save a tree, eat a beaver,” and I’ve also seen “save a cow, eat a vegan.” I don’t think possible Ys are restricted only to {ride, eat}, though again there is a louche connotation in one of these examples, which seems to suggest that Y is limited to words that can stand in for sex.]

In X, no one can hear you Y

1979, the film Alien: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

As you might expect, Y is generally limited to things a person can emit, usually with his voice. E.g., pray, yawn, groan, sing in the shower. (All of these turn up on a Google search for "in space no one can hear you".) Y does occasionally appear with a non-vocal meaning, but I believe this is a violation of snowclone-hood, because the further it gets from having something in common with scream, the less likely it is to evoke the movie quote. I think in order for a phrase to be a true snowclone, it will remind the hearer of its original source.

X also seems to be somewhat limited. If it is not some variation on space (Mars, cyberspace) then Y is much more likely to be scream, so as to keep the Alien reference unambiguous.

This is one of the first instances of a snowclone written about by Geoff Pullum, before had even come up with the word “snowclone.”

Hat tip to commentator Jeremiah for pointing out the other variable.

more administrative notes

As of today, I have at least 30 more snowclones queued up to be posted. I am holding off on taking suggestions until I get through them, although comments are open as you can see. I intend to post at least one snowclone a week until I get through my queue. All posts should be searchable, so if you do have a suggested addition to the database, please do a search before sending me a suggestion!

I am trying to make this comprehensive and consistently formatted, but as a blog getting it to that state is an organic process. You will see it get prettier as we go, I hope. I haven’t ironed out the formatting exactly, and I don’t always remember everything I want to say about a particular snowclone when I write its post, so I hope you can help me by commenting when you see information missing.

X is the new Y

You have probably seen some incarnation of this snowclone in the last week, if not more recently. (“Knitting is the new yoga“?)

Ben Zimmer has already traced the origin of this one: it was attributed to Gloria Vanderbilt as “pink is the navy blue of India,” but Diana Vreeland actually said it in the early 1960s. Thus we might describe the etymology as an instance of the “X is the Y of Z” snowclone growing into a new catchphrase. “X is the new Y” started to appear in fashion journalism in reference to the “navy blue of India” quote. In the late 1970s, various colors became “the new neutrals;” in the 1980s they were “the new black.” Today, Google gives 16 million+ webhits for "is the new". “As Gawker said, the thing looks unkillable.”

Edited 27 Mar 2008:

Nancy Friedman collected some recent citations from the San Francisco Chronicle for me:

“Happiness is the new black.” — Jon Carroll:
“Obama is the new black.” — Nice twist! Quoted in Leah Garchik’s column:
“Coffee is the new wine.” — Quoted in Leah Garchik’s column: