May 21, 2005

An avalanchlet of snowclones

moresnowclones Now that we've revisited the wonderful world of snowclones (here, here, and here), they seem to be everywhere.  Here are three more that have recently come to my attention: the N that is N (the abomination that is Jar Jar Binks), from Aaron Dinkin in e-mail (19 May); one man's X is another man's Y (one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter), from Rachel Shuttlesworth on the American Dialect Society mailing list (20 May); and color me X (color me surprised), which I was reminded of this morning when I ran across references to Color Me Arnold (a coloring book of sorts, aimed at Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governator of my state).

But first, three comments.

First comment: the line between clichés, some of which can have open slots (the wonderful world of X, as in the wonderful world of snowclones above), and the somewhat more complex classic snowclones, like the X have N words for Y (which gave the genus its name), is not at all clear.  Probably it's like the line between idioms and constructions: there are pretty clear examples at the extremes (the idiom by and large, the construction Subject Auxiliary Inversion), but a range of intermediate types, with varying degrees and kinds of freedom as to what can fill the slots in the pattern and with varying degrees of semantic and pragmatic specialization.

As for the wonderful world of X, besides the very familiar X = Disney, Google's 600,000 raw web hits for "the wonderful world of" include, in no particular order, the following fillers for X:  border collies, insects, trees, Linux 2.2, Linux 2.6, the manatee, Calli And Graphy, renewal energy, coins, Paso Fino horses, weather, animation, Larry Carlson, poodles, wine, Narnia.  There's one open slot, and the expressions are semantically and pragmatically transparent.  It's just that wonderful and world collocate much more often than the other (non-alliterative) possibilities: 63,900 hits for amazing world (roughly one-tenth of the wonderful world count), 3,480 for marvelous world, 1,140 for astounding world, and a mere 617 for wonderful universe.

Contrast this simple collocational pattern with Geoff Pullum's characterization of the snowclone as "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."

Second comment: an update on the once a X, always a X snowclone.  Roger Depledge writes (on 17 May) to point out that the legal Latin formula semel X, semper X 'once a X, always a X' works semantically as well as phonologically, since semel and semper share an element sem- 'one, together' that goes back to PIE.  In any case, it seems likely that the fixed version of the English snowclone was strongly influenced by the Latin formula.  Depledge points out that the formula also occurs in French (X un jour, X toujours) and German (einmal X, immer X).  (For all I know, it might occur in Finnish, Hungarian, and Russian as well.)  Whether different languages were separately influenced by the Latin formula, or whether the formula spread from one modern language to others, or both, is for textual scholars to discover.  I am so not a textual scholar.

Third comment: Barry Popik (ADS-L, 18 May) adds an entry to the X is the new Y inventory: Chocolate is the new black (which he first observed at a Godiva chocolate store).  It's not entirely clear to me from the links that Popik supplies, but I think that the intention is to convey that chocolate is an affordable luxury, like the famous little black dress.  In any case, X is the new Y was one of the first snowclones to come to our attention here at Language Log Plaza, back when the furniture was still being installed in our gleaming office tower.

And now on to the new entries.  First, the X that is Y, where X is a descriptive noun (with strong evaluative content) and Y refers to the thing or person (usually person) that is being described.  Dinkin's geeky examples, gleaned from fanblogs (Dinkin notes defensively, "Not that I ever read fanblogs or anything like that. This is purely for research purposes, of course."):

    the abomination that is Jar Jar Binks
    the greatness that is Yoda
    the manliness that is Jayne
    the weirdness that is Xander
    the gorgeousness that is Viggo Mortensen
    the beauty that is Dominic Monaghan
    the enigma that is Snape

    the failure that is Enterprise
    the wretchedness that is Matrix: Reloaded

    the miracle that is George Lucas's imagination

(Please remember that Dinkin and I are merely reporting these evaluations, not agreeing with them. I myself am, like the writer of the above, partial to Viggo Mortensen, but find Xander charming rather than weird and could describe George Lucas's imagination as a miracle only in a sarcastic moment.)

Dinkin observes that's essentially impossible to do a Google search for this snowclone, since "the * that is *" turns up millions of false positives.  He found the ones above by trying various instances of Y that were likely to elicit strong feelings from geeks.  Undoubtedly the formula occurs in non-geek contexts; Dinkin just happened to have noticed examples in fanblogs.

Goodness knows how you'd track down the origins of something like this.

On to the second example, one man's X is another man's Y, for which we have a pretty good idea of the source, namely one man's meat is another man's poison.  Rachel Shuttlesworth found examples in exactly this form (well, with variant spelling: "one man's meate is another man's poyson") from 1618 (where it was already referred to as "a proverb").  The OED Online (March 2005 draft revision) has a slightly earlier version, from ca. 1576: "þat which iz on bodies meat iz an oþerz poizon."  The OED also has a 1604 cite that refers to "That ould moth-eaten Prouerbe..One mans meate, is another mans poyzon."  Moth-eaten already, four hundred years ago!  Variant formulations (including the reversed "One man's poison, another man's meat", from 1902) appear throughout the centuries, but the archetype is clear.

The ultimate source again appears to be Latin.  Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, in fact.  The closest dictionary of quotations (a Bartlett's 15th edition, of 1980) gives, from book IV, line 637 in the Rouse translation, "What is food to one, is to others bitter poison."  In the original: "Ut quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum."

In any case, the fixed meat... poison version has been robust for centuries, and now (as Shuttlesworth observed) serves as the model for all sorts of variations, including the one in the Paul Simon song "One man's ceiling is another man's floor".  Among Google's 120,000 raw web hits for  "one man's * is another man's *" are the following pairings: weed... ground cover, coconut... grenade, junk... treasure, security... prison, pork [in the legislative sense]... dinner, home... castle, vice... virtue, trash... treasure, data... metadata, meat... girlfriend (sigh), mistake... smart move.  There are other variants out there; Shuttlesworth unearthed the following 1853 quote from the New York Daily Times, that refers to the "old, musty, but true proverb" and then plays with it: "What was one man's loss was another, yes, a thousand ladies' gain.

At this point, the ADS-L discussion turned to the question of which wag first varied the formula to the punning "One man's Mede is another man's Persian".  Definitive results not yet in.

Finally, the third example, color me X 'I am X'.  Googling for this one requires sorting through names of coloring books and straightforward instructions to "color me green/black/etc."  But there's plenty of gold left, with X = surprised, impressed, jealous, sensitive, beautiful, confused, underwhelmed,...  There are plenty of song titles, too: Color Me X, with X = Badd (Young, Gifted & Badd), Blind (Extreme), Gone (Rhonda Hampton), Impressed (The Replacements), for example.  And, of course, the Streisand song, and album, Color Me Barbra (1966).

There are plenty of examples with other object pronouns: color her angry, color him [designer Tibor Kalman] a provacateur, color them [Nokia] booming, color them confident.  No doubt plenty of non-pronominal examples can be found as well.

The ultimate source is surely instructions in coloring books, involving a stretch from things like "color the pig pink" to things like "color me happy".  At some point, the expression became fashionable (and therefore annoying), but I'm not quite sure what the precipitating events were.  I have a haunting feeling that La Streisand was not the origin, that there was a song, or book, from the '50s.  If so, I'm sure some student of popular culture will let me know, in e-mail beginning "How could you possibly have forgotten...?"  I will be appropriately humble, and thankful.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 21, 2005 02:01 PM