April 18, 2006

All that and talk about Fight Club

The last week's e-mail to Language Log Plaza brought two fairly recent snowclones, both based on very specific originals, "The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club" and "(be) all that and a bag of chips".  As usual, the variants include some that stick close to the original and some that stray from the model.

Talk about Fight Club.  On 4/11/06 Ann Burlingham, owner and manager of Burlingham Books in Perry, New York, wrote that she had been planning to use the slogan "the first rule of book club is, you don't talk about book club" in the store, but discovered it had already been taken.  In fact, she got 821 Google hits for "first rule of book club".  And found this in Wikipedia:

The Onion -- The satirical newspaper ran an article parodying Fight Club titled "The First Rule Of The Quilting Society Is You Don't Talk About The Quilting Society"

The original, from the movie Fight Club (1999), is given by the IMDB as:

Tyler Durden [played by Brad Pitt]: The first rule of Fight Club is - you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is - you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.

(There are other rules, but no more of this form.)

I get 867 raw webhits on <"the first rule of" "is that you do not talk"> and 671 on the contracted version <"the first rule of" "is that you don't talk">. 

Sticking close to the model with "X Club(s)/club(s)" are variants like: DXBetaClub, rhetoric fight club, Employed Club, Milk and Honey Club, Blast Club, Blast Clubs, suicide club, Job Club, Bollywood Club.  A bit further out are instances of "the first rule of X..." where X denotes an organization (Chandler's Guild, the organization, IT support), a game or contest (Mornington Crescent, King of the Mountain, DEATHBALL!!!!, Roomba cockfighting), or an activity (podcasting, partying with AG and I, Google Party).  Still further out are various geeky Xs, for instance: Unicode, Design Vigilantism, Mac text editors, LiveJournal, HamletWeb.  No doubt there are still more remote examples.

Though the movie Fight Club is clearly the trigger for the spread of the snowclone, the expression "the first thing about X is that you don't talk about X" (or close variants of it) is likely to have been around for some time before the movie, probably used in a wry way by speakers or writers independently.  There's really no point in trying to trace the pre-Fight Club history of the expression.  Things are different with the other snowclone I was offered this week.

A bag of chips.  On 4/18/06 came e-mail from Erin McKean of OUP, relaying a blog entry by Jenny Palmer on the snowcloning of the predicative idiom "(be) all that and a bag of chips" '(be) wonderful, (be) hot stuff' (often used ironically, apparently).  I am so not with it that I hadn't even been aware of the idiom.  But it's been around for a few years -- the Urban Dictionary entry for it has one contributor identifying it as a 90s saying, though this site is scarcely to be taken as an authority on anything -- long enough to get used as the title of a novel (by Darrien Lee, published in 2002), the name of a rock group (formed in 2002), and the title of a poem (by Nordette Adams, in 2004).

Urban Dictionary has the variant "bag of potato chips", but Palmer found much, much more: 31 variants in the first 100 hits pulled up by a Google search on  <"all that and a">.  There are some very close to the original, with "bag of X", where X denotes something edible, especially (as Palmer notes in her analysis, which I'm following fairly closely here) a snack food: Terra Chips, Fritos, Gummy Bears, frijoles, Tostitos, Pistachios, Chomby Chips (treats for Chombies -- check out "Chomby"), pretzels, crisps.  Or with other Xs: microchips, Crips, dicks, self-loathing, antisemitism (note phonological play in the first three).  Somewhat further out are examples with "a Y of X", where Y denotes a container,  measure, or serving and X denotes the thing contained, measured, or served.  Again, X often denotes something edible: bowl of grits, slice of toast, side of slaw, napsack [sic] of chips, cup of coffee, bottle of rum, plate of chips, side of bacon.  But occasionally not: pair of tap shoes.  Still further out, but with the "Y of X" structure: hideous reminder of our insignificance.

The outliers lose the "Y of X" structure, in favor of simpler NPs.  Some of these denote edibilia: ham sandwich, Frito pie.  Others lose even that connection to the original: tarot deck, handbag, mustache, new toothbrush.

Neither Palmer nor I has any idea about the source of the original "(be) all that and a bag of chips". But it probably has a traceable history, since it's not at all an obvious figure for conveying positive evaluation (whether straight or ironically).  Its effect has to be calculated from the context in which it's used and an assessment of the user's intentions, and can't be easily divined just from the form of the expression -- in contrast to uses of the "first rule... don't talk" snowclone.

[Ben Zimmer has now unearthed piles of examples from the newsgroup alt.rap from 1992-93.  The very first of these, from 1/7/92, is: "Naughty By Nature was up next.  The brothers were all dat and a bag of chips, pretzels and Doritos."  In addition to plain "chips" examples, there's quite an assortment of other variants: bag of Cheetoes [sic], bowl of government $cheese, bag of grits, cherry on top, Bowlful of Jelly, pair of black boots, can of tomato soup, slice or [sic] warm banana bread with some butter, bagel with cream cheese, bowl of grits (several times).  Such a profusion of variants suggests that the figure had been around for a while before 1992, or that it had radiated rapidly from its source, possibly in a rap.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 18, 2006 02:25 PM