July 04, 2005

Documenting snowclones, dating them

It's one thing to document a phenomenon, another thing to trace its history.  Words, idioms, syntactic constructions, verbal formulas, morphological forms, phonemic distinctions, pronunciations, etc. -- all can be documented, in their full variety, as they are now, and we can investigate the paths that led to this state.  Often investigating history will allow us to understand why some puzzling synchronic details are the way they are.  On the other hand, changes not infrequently make details of the history unrecoverable from current states.  In any case, documenting a phenomenon and dating it are two different enterprises.

My interest in snowclones (and eggcorns and syntactic variation and much else) is mostly on the documentation side, though it's often important to point out that phenomena that people think are very recent have been around for a long time.  In doing so, though, I make no claims about the "original" versions of these phenomena -- if, indeed, there can be said to be any such things.  In providing cites of the WHAT IS THIS 'X'? snowclone that go back a while, as I did here yesterday, I'm making no claims in the antedating game, just noting that it wasn't born yesterday.  So I'm somewhat annoyed when I get e-mail that presupposes that since Ben Zimmer provided cites going back to the earliest days of the Internet, he and I were claiming that the snowclone originated then.  Silly Ben and Arnold!

Still, it's intriguing to see earlier occurrences and possible antecedents, and I'll report on these here.  While noting that snowclones are often frozen versions of sentiments that people have been expressing for millennia.

Ben provided a pile of Internet cites (which are easy to come by, after all) going back to 1983 and speculated that the snowclone might have originated in cheesy science fiction flicks of the '50s and '60s.  All this merely establishes that the snowclone's been around for a while.  From John Kozak in e-mail and Grant Barrett on ADS-L comes the reference to the wonderful (and enormously popular) Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  HGG started as a radio show (the relevant episode was broadcast on 22 March 1978) and then appeared in book form in 1979.  In Grant Barrett's re-telling from the book:

the hero, Arthur Dent, is taken to a the bowels of a hyperdimensional factory floor where a new Earth is being built. He is told by a scientist named Slartibartfast that the hyperdimensional beings in charge are mice (at least, that's how they look in the factory's dimension). Arthur replies,

"Look, sorry, are we talking about the little white furry things with the cheese fixation and women standing on tables screaming in early sixties sitcoms?"

Slartibartfast coughed politely.

"Earthman," he said, "it is sometimes hard to follow your mode of speech. Remember I have been asleep inside this planet of Magrathea for five million years and know little of these early sixties sitcoms of which you speak."

This exemplifies the variant with a demonstrative ("these" in this case) and with the stilted "of which you speak", but not the interrogative form.  Barrett concludes, "I do think that both the radio version and the book were popular enough to act as the blasting cap for the larger explosion of the term's popularity, at least among the geek set."

Barrett's reference to an "explosion" is important.  Linguistic variants, of all sorts, start out small, hang around at low frequencies, and then (sometimes) spread rapidly.  From the point of view of the resulting state of the language, what's most important in this history is the point at which the variant takes off.  From the point of view of history for its own sake, what's most important is the mechanisms that gave rise to the variant in the first place. 

In the case of snowclones, the sentiments expressed are usually pretty banal, of the sort that people might have been uttering since the dawn of language.  Surely, people have been forever observing that foreigners -- space aliens included -- might be ignorant of aspects of the language and culture they are visiting and might express themselves awkwardly, or even ungrammatically, in inquiring about these aspects.  There are many ways of couching this observation.  At some point, one or more of these ways attract attention and a fashion for them takes hold.  There's an explosion.  The snowclone Big Bang.

Several correspondents have provided quotations that might come from the days before the Big Bang.  Language Hat's posting on WHAT IS THIS 'X'? on his blog elicited a cite (from "aldiboronti") from the 1943 English translation of Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince: "My little man, where do you come from? What is this 'where I live,' of which you speak?"  This diverges significantly from the original French: "D'où viens-tu mon petit bonhomme? Où est-ce 'chez toi'? "

And Cameron Majidi takes it back to the 1794 gothic horror novel The Monk, by Matthew Lewis: "'Father, you amaze me!  What is this love of which you speak?  I neither know its nature, nor if I felt it, why I should conceal the sentiment.'"

Soon, no doubt, there will be cites in Latin and Greek, maybe even a quotation from Gilgamesh.  Cultural contact goes back a long long way.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 4, 2005 02:21 PM