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Snowclone is a neologism for a type of cliché and phrasal template originally defined as "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants".
An example of a snowclone is the phrase "grey is the new black," which gave rise to the template "X is the new Y." X and Y may be replaced with different words or phrases—for example, "comedy is the new rock 'n' roll." Using "there are always more fish in the sea" as a template, one could say, "there are always more sharks in the cesspool." The term "snowclone" can be applied to both the original phrase and to any new phrase that uses its formula.
A snowclone conveys information by using a familiar verbal formula and the cultural knowledge of the audience. A variant snowclone may refer to completely different things from the original (in the example above, colours versus types of performance). The original and the variant express similar relationships and can be understood using the same trope. For example, "grey is the new black" is a well-known expression meaning that grey clothing now has the same social functions that black clothing used to have. A well-used twist on this is "black is the new black." An audience that has never heard the phrase "comedy is the new rock 'n' roll" can still recognize the structure and understand it to mean that comedy is taking on some of the same social functions that are usually attributed to rock music.
The term snowclone was coined by Glen Whitman on January 15, 2004, in response to a request from Geoffrey Pullum on the Language Log weblog. Pullum endorsed it as a term of art the next day, and it has since been adopted by other linguists, journalists and authors. The term alludes to one of Pullum's example template phrases:
If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.
(As Language Log explains, this is a popular rhetorical trope used by journalists to imply that cultural group X has reason to spend a great deal of time thinking about the specific idea Z, though the basic premise is wrong: as it happens, in fact Eskimos do not have an unusually large number of words for "snow".)
In 1995, linguist David Crystal referred to this kind of trope as a "catch structure," citing as an example the phrase "to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before" as originally used in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series (1978). Adams' phrase references Star Trek ("...to boldly go where no man has gone before!") to humorously point out the use of a split infinitive, a controversial construction.
Snowclones are related to both memes and clichés, as the Los Angeles Times' David Sarno notes, "Snowclones are memechés, if you will: meme-ified clichés with the operative words removed, leaving spaces for you or the masses to Mad Lib their own versions." In the study of folklore, snowclones are a form of what are usually described as a proverbial phrase which have a long history of description and analysis. There are many kinds of such wordplay, as described in a variety of studies of written and oral sources.
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