Documenting snowclones, dating them
It's one thing to document a phenomenon, another thing to trace its
history. Words, idioms, syntactic constructions, verbal formulas,
morphological forms, phonemic distinctions, pronunciations, etc. -- all
can be documented, in their full variety, as they are now, and we can
investigate the paths that led to this state. Often investigating
history will allow us to understand why some puzzling synchronic
details are the way they are. On the other hand, changes not
infrequently make details of the history unrecoverable from current
states. In any case, documenting a phenomenon and dating it are
two different enterprises.
My interest in snowclones (and eggcorns and syntactic variation and
much else) is mostly on the documentation side, though it's often
important to point out that phenomena that people think are very recent
have been around for a long time. In doing so, though, I make no
claims about the "original" versions of these phenomena -- if, indeed,
there can be said to be any such things. In providing cites of
the WHAT IS THIS 'X'? snowclone that go back a while, as
I did here yesterday
, I'm making no claims in the antedating game,
just noting that it wasn't born yesterday. So I'm somewhat
annoyed when I get e-mail that presupposes that since Ben Zimmer
provided cites going back to the earliest days of the Internet, he and
I were claiming that the snowclone originated then. Silly Ben and
Still, it's intriguing to see earlier occurrences and possible
antecedents, and I'll report on these here. While noting that
snowclones are often frozen versions of sentiments that people have
been expressing for millennia.
Ben provided a pile of Internet cites (which are easy to come by, after
all) going back to 1983 and speculated that the snowclone might have
originated in cheesy science fiction flicks of the '50s and '60s.
All this merely establishes that the snowclone's been around for a
while. From John Kozak in e-mail and Grant Barrett on ADS-L comes
the reference to the wonderful (and enormously popular) Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams. HGG
started as a radio show (the relevant episode was broadcast on 22 March
1978) and then appeared in book form in 1979. In Grant Barrett's
re-telling from the book:
the hero, Arthur Dent, is taken to a
the bowels of a hyperdimensional factory floor where a new Earth is
being built. He is told by a scientist named Slartibartfast that the
hyperdimensional beings in charge are mice (at least, that's how they
look in the factory's dimension). Arthur replies,
"Look, sorry, are we talking about the
little white furry things with the cheese fixation and women standing
on tables screaming in early sixties sitcoms?"
Slartibartfast coughed politely.
"Earthman," he said, "it is sometimes hard to follow your mode of
speech. Remember I have been asleep inside this planet of Magrathea for
five million years and know little of these early sixties sitcoms of
which you speak."
This exemplifies the variant with a demonstrative ("these" in this
case) and with the stilted "of which you speak", but not the
interrogative form. Barrett concludes, "I do think that both the
radio version and the book were popular enough to act as the blasting
cap for the larger explosion of the term's popularity, at least among
the geek set."
Barrett's reference to an "explosion" is important. Linguistic
variants, of all sorts, start out small, hang around at low
frequencies, and then (sometimes) spread rapidly. From the point
of view of the resulting state of the language, what's most important
in this history is the point at which the variant takes off. From
the point of view of history for its own sake, what's most important is
the mechanisms that gave rise to the variant in the first place.
In the case of snowclones, the sentiments expressed are usually pretty
banal, of the sort that people might have been uttering since the dawn
of language. Surely, people have been forever observing that
foreigners -- space aliens included -- might be ignorant of aspects of
the language and culture they are visiting and might express themselves
awkwardly, or even ungrammatically, in inquiring about these
aspects. There are many ways of couching this observation.
At some point, one or more of these ways attract attention and a
fashion for them takes hold. There's an explosion. The
snowclone Big Bang.
Several correspondents have provided quotations that might come from
the days before the Big Bang. Language Hat's posting on WHAT IS
THIS 'X'? on
elicited a cite (from "aldiboronti") from the 1943 English
translation of Saint-Exupery's The
: "My little man, where do you come from? What is
this 'where I live,' of which you speak?" This diverges
significantly from the original French: "D'où viens-tu mon
petit bonhomme? Où est-ce 'chez toi'? "
And Cameron Majidi takes it back to the 1794 gothic horror novel The Monk
, by Matthew Lewis:
"'Father, you amaze me! What is this love of which you
speak? I neither know its nature, nor if I felt it, why I should
conceal the sentiment.'"
Soon, no doubt, there will be cites in Latin and Greek, maybe even a
quotation from Gilgamesh
Cultural contact goes back a long long way.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 4, 2005 02:21 PM