July 03, 2005

What is this 'snowclone' of which you speak?

More news from the American Dialect Society mailing list, this time about some snowclones (a topic most recently discussed in this space here) we haven't talked about.  From Ben Zimmer, on 24 June, a report on a snowclone with two basic variants:

"What is this 'X' (that) you speak of?"
"What is this 'X' of which you speak?"

and then a reference to the related "'X'?  What is 'X'?"

Zimmer finds examples all the way back to the early days of Usenet:

There has been a lot of net discussion about "toilet paper" recently. Just what is this "toilet paper" of which you speak?  Where can I find it?  (from net.misc, 24 August 1983 (link))

In e-mail on 28 June, Zimmer supplied a pile more:

What is This "Weblog" of Which You Speak? (link)
What is this mouse book of which you speak? (link)
What Is This "Spice Market" Of Which You Speak? (link)
What is this 'constitution' of which you speak? (link)
What is this "TimeLogic" of which you speak? (link)
What is this Final Fantasy you speak of? (link)
What is this "environmentalism" you speak of? (link)
What Is This "Print" You Speak of? (link)
What is this Devil that you speak of? (link)
What is this 'life' you speak of? (link)

Zimmer's ADS-L discussion continued:

The origin seems to be in the collective memory of big-screen and small-screen science fiction from the '50s and '60s. It has the sound of a clichéd line spoken by an alien to a human exploring other planets (often the vocative "earthling" is appended). In such "first contact" scenes, aliens can of course speak perfect English yet lack certain key concepts and their associated significations, which the humans can then explain. (It's also possible to imagine the line spoken in intra-human settings involving time travel, lost tribes, unfrozen cavemen, etc.)

The fronted version with "...of which you speak" adds an extra component of alien formality (cf. Yoda's inverted syntax, as discussed on Language Log [starting here]). I haven't found any firm evidence that either version was actually used in classic sci-fi on film or TV.

Closely related to this snowclone is the line, "'Kiss'? What is 'kiss'?"-- emblematic of campy interplanetary romance, which of course is invariably between a male human and a female alien. (It was a favorite catchphrase of the crew on Mystery Science Theater 3000.) The line is often attributed to Altaira (Anne Francis) in The Forbidden Planet (1956) or to one of Kirk's conquests in the original series of Star Trek.  This was investigated on the rec.arts.sf.tv newsgroup, and they've ruled out The Forbidden Planet and Star Trek.

It's probably just a spurious quotation, along the lines of "Play it again, Sam" or "Judy, Judy, Judy" (or for that matter "Beam me up, Scotty").  Star Trek did, however, have many "What is 'X'?" scenes, most notoriously in the episode "Spock's Brain", which had the immortal line, "'Brain' and 'brain'! What is 'brain'?"

Zimmer also supplied a partial transcript of another episode featuring cross-planetary misunderstanding, "The Apple", in which an alien asks "What is love?" and, on understanding that holding and touching are involved, announces: "Vaal has forbidden this."

[And now (in e-mail) Adam Linville adds the variant "'X'? What means this 'X'?", also presumably from sci-fi contexts.  Still more foreigner-talk.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

[Update: more here.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 3, 2005 08:12 PM