October 27, 2003

Phrases for lazy writers in kit form

Mark Liberman asked in an early posting to LanguageLog what we should call a linguistic error like egg corns (for "acorns"), arguing convincingly that it is not exactly a malapropism or a mondegreen or a folk etymology. I answered that it should be called (of course) an eggcorn.

It now occurs to me that we also need a name for another linguistic figure, also noted by Mark but not yet named. Roughly speaking, the thing we need a name for is 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.

Let me explain.

Mark pointed out to me in connection with a post of mine on LanguageLog that hundreds or even thousands of unimaginative writers are using If Eskimos have N words for snow... (pick any number you like for the N), especially as the first sentence in a piece. It has become a journalistic cliché phrase with an attention-grabbing hook and totally free parameters for you to set as you wish -- that is, the value for N and the main clause that you continue the sentence with (like ...Santa Cruzans must have even more for surf or whatever).

Well, I just discovered another one, quite by accident. Checking on the source of the original poster slogan for Alien, I was distracted by finding that the web has ten thousand or more instances of jokey variants on it. The original was In space, no one can hear you scream. I found people saying (often in headlines for film reviews) that in space no one can hear you belch, bitch, blog, cream, DJ, dream, drink, explode, gag, groan, laugh, moo, opine, pop, sell, sing, smeg, snore, speak, squeak, suck, sweat, tap, whimper, yawn... And there are plenty more, like "say thank you", "ask for bail", "ask `What the heck was that supposed to be?'"... Not to mention In space, no one can see your breasts and many other farther-out twistings of the slogan.

What's need is a convenient one-word named for this kind of reusable customizable easily-recognized twisted variant of a familiar but non-literary quoted or misquoted saying. (I say "or misquoted" because there is actually no original source for The Eskimos have N words for snow, people only think it once appeared in some reputable source.) "Cliché" isn't narrow enough -- these things are certainly clichés, but a very special type of cliché. And "literary allusion" won't do: these things don't by any means have to be literary.

Usually I'm moderately good at thinking up terminology. I am the proud creator of the term vortensity, which now has dozens of citations in astrophysics (it denotes the ratio of swirling rate to unit surface density in accretion disks like the rings of Saturn or other rotating clouds of debris). But on this particular meme type I have failed so far.

I'll probably think of something. Or one of the other LanguageLog bloggers will. Or someone will email me a good idea in plain ASCII text form and I'll credit them here.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 27, 2003 06:22 PM