Snowclone: “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 jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers” (Pullum, 2003)
That definition undoubtedly requires explanation.
Geoffrey Pullum, in my quote above, was appealing for a word to fit his definition. He felt there was a need for a word to describe a particular kind of cliché—stock phrases like, “In space, no-one can hear you scream,” which are endlessly recycled in modified constructions of the form, “In space, no-one can hear you X.” In 2003, Pullum discovered 10,000 variant forms of that phrase on the internet.
Other examples of the same phenomenon are: “I X, therefore I am,” “X is the new Y,” and, “We’re gonna need a bigger X.” I committed one myself in a recent post on this blog, though I flatter myself it was a cut above the usual. Can anyone spot it?
The type specimen of this phenomenon was, “If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, then X should have a hundred words for Y.” (“Scots” and “rain” come to mind.)
Pullum made his appeal for a name for this phenomenon in October 2003, and in January 2004 Glen Whitman made a post on his blog Agoraphilia, which provided the necessary word: snowclone, so-called because the original examples were clones of a phrase about snow. In the last decade, the snowclone phenomenon has become so well recognized that it has its own website.
Pullum, the Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, was in at the origin of the word snowclone because he had a particular involvement with the vexatious issue of Eskimo words for snow. In 1989 he wrote an article entitled “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” (Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 7, 275-81). The link I’ve put in the title takes you to a pdf of the original article, which is great fun to read, if you have a few spare minutes. Frankly, anyone who uses the phrase “lexically profligate hyperborean nomads” is all right with me.
The article was one of a series of pieces Pullum wrote for NLLT, which were subsequently collected in a book, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. They were primarily aimed at an audience of linguists, so some of them are hard going for those of us who are not up on the hot linguistic topics of the late 80s and early 90s.
Now, Eskimo is a loaded term—it’s an exonym (a name imposed from outside the group) that many polar indigenous people find insulting, preferring their own names for themselves, such as Inuit and Yupik. But it is the technical name for a particular language group spoken in Eastern Siberia, Alaska, Arctic Canada and Greenland. And that’s the sense in which Pullum uses it.
Pullum charts how an original 1911 estimate of four (yes, four) root words for snow in the Eskimo languages (since you asked: apat “snow on the ground”, gana “falling snow”, piqsirpoq “drifting snow” and qimuqsuq “snow drift”) was slowly inflated by subsequent authors until it reached the hundreds. For some reason, people seem to want the Inuit to have many words for snow.
But honestly, the Scots have more words for rain.