February 06, 2004

"Snowclone" as a chart R&B song

J-P Stacey is annoyed by "clichéd journalistic laziness", but is even more annoyed by Glen Whitman's coinage "snowclone":

Redolent of William Gibson and other “writors”, it sits on my screen like a chart R&B song in my CD collection. And although it was coined in mid-January (they’re able to date it to the second because it was sent by e-mail: how terribly clever of them) it nonetheless sounds like something from either the mid-90s or early 80s. Retro kitsch or merely a flailing motion made by the thinly read?

It’s ironic that the name itself has its origins in a fit of laziness, grasping for the nearest thing to hand: the apocryphal, middlebrow saw about Inuit words for snow. An irony that, in a burst of meta-irony, would be best appreciated by those involved: those least likely to admit to having been slapdash. Even that meta-irony is—I could go on, but that would make me one of them.

I'm afraid that I lost the thread of this complaint somewhere in the second level of meta-irony, because I was distracted by the scare-quoted "writors" in the first clause. Is Stacey suggesting that Gibson has a spelling problem, or has adopted a non-standard spelling for this word as a sort of badge of identity, or is commonly referred to in this way by some other group for some reason? If so, I've missed it. Or is this just an obscurely snarky way of saying that Stacey thinks Gibson is a bad writer? And why are the words of writers who can't (or won't) spell writers right "like a chart R&B song"? Probably it's just that Stacey feels socially and culturally superior to both, but perhaps there's a more substantive connection.

I'm just a bystander here, but if I were Glen Whitman, I'd be happy to be classed with William Gibson and chart R&B songs. I'm tempted to try to annoy Mr Stacey enough to get him to call me some names too. Let's see, could I be 'redolent of Stravinsky and other "muzishuns", sitting on the screen like a Iain Banks novel in my collection of Victorian masterpieces.' No, I'm no good at this, I'll leave it to him.

[Update: John Kozak emails:

I can elucidate "writor" (I think).

The UK political/cultural TV satire programme "Spitting Image" had as a stock character a Leonard Nimoy puppet, who would start with the declamation: "I am not Spock! I am LeoNARD Nimoy, the actOR", do a chunk of Shakespeare, then spasm into Trekisms (e.g. "to be or to ... Beam me up Scotty!").

So, "actOR" is widely used in the UK to denote a certain kind of thesp. I'm guessing "writor" is by analogy with this, though I haven't come across other evidence that this is productive. Interesting inflection, though, if so.

I'm always thankful for clues to linguistic puzzles, but I don't think I get it yet. If John's construal is correct, then J-P Stacey was suggesting not that William Gibson has a spelling disability, but rather that he is -- pretentious? That's at least not completely nonsensical, but it seems too meta-ironic (infra-ironic? ultra-ironic?) to credit.

However, it indeed would be a devilishly subtle inflection: to imply that someone is aspiring above his station, merely by failing to reduce the vowel of the agentive suffix. K3wl! I'd try it out the next time I'm patronized by a "waitor", but I'm afraid that this may turn out to be like Marmite, one of those features of British culture that doesn't cross the Atlantic very well. ]

[Update #2: T Campbell emails another theory:

I suspect it has less to do with Nimoy and more to do with the slangy spellings of the "leet haxors" or "leet haxorz" or "1337 h4x0rz."

That makes sense, but (like many sensible things) it would be a disappointment -- I was getting attached to the theory of an unreduced-agentive morph meaning "inappropriately ambitious". And shouldn't it be "wr17Orz" or "wr173rz" or "wr1tOrz" if it's 1337-speak? Anyhow, it all goes to show that "theory of mind" reasoning is hard. Stacey meant something by misspelling "writors" in scare quotes -- but what?]

[Update #3 (4/10/2004): Stacey has noticed this note, and explained himself (as of 4/8). After reading what he has to say, I still don't know why he called William Gibson a "writor". He did oblige me with a few paragraphs of wordy insults, but none are very memorable. I'm disappointed, since he has a real talent. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 6, 2004 08:01 AM