January 29, 2004

In Soviet Russia, snowclones overuse you

Bob Fleck wrote in to point out another variety of the ironic phrasal templates exemplified by "I,for one, welcome our new ___ overlords". The origin for the pattern Bob cites is a set of jokes by the emigré comedian Yakov Smirnoff, most famously "In America, you can always find a party; in Russia, the party can always find you." The pattern is generalized to a a frame of the form "In [America or a substitute], you [verb group headed by X] Y; in [(Soviet) Russia or a substitute], Y [verb group headed by X] you." The first clause is now often omitted.

Here's a wiki page with lots of examples and discussion. Many of the examples are not funny -- or even interpretable -- except in the limited social sense in which out-of-context repetition of a currently-hot tag line always gets a sort of phatic yuk. However, there are a few thoughtful examples like Tim Lesher's "In ExtremeProgramming, you continually test your code. In WaterFall, your code continually tests you."

These phrasal templates are like the patterns for which Glen Whitman proposed the term snowclone. They're slightly different, because these are self-conscious and ironic evocations of a pattern viewed as intrinsically funny, rather than serious uses of a pattern that is felt to be intelligent and perhaps even original.

The Soviet Russia template has an interesting linguistic aspect: the paired contrastive accents that indicate role reversal. This phenomenon was first (as far as I know) pointed out by George Lakoff in 1971 ("Presupposition and Relative Well-formedness", in Steinberg & Jakobovits, eds., Semantics. CUP), using the example sentence

John called Mary a Republican, and then SHE insulted HIM.

You can see that George was busy framing political discourse, even then. Quite a bit of ink has been dispensed since then in proposing and debunking models for the constrastive role-reversal phenomenon, for example here.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 29, 2004 08:57 PM