October 18, 2005

Critical tone for a new snowclone

If you're reasonably up on your American pop culture, you'll have caught the echo of the Bravo television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  But if you missed the allusion and didn't take "a critical tone for a new snowclone" to exemplify any sort of formulaic language, you still understood the phrase pretty much as I intended.  I can supply plenty of examples that are much closer to the original  -- "Queer eye for the dead guy"  (#2 below, way below) -- as well as some in an intermediate zone:  "Queer Eye for the Scruffy Dog" (#12), "Straight Eye for the Consumer Guy" (#17), "Bubba eye for the Brahmin guy" (#8). The question is then:  are these instances of a new Eye Guy snowclone?  Or just allusions to an expression?  What counts as a snowclone, anyway?

In clear examples of snowclones, like the Play One figure I recently discussed here (based on the model "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV"):

the figure contributes some meaning of its own; appreciating the full import of (my own words) "I am not a semanticist, though I play one at Language Log Plaza" depends on getting the acting metaphor, which you can do by active interpretation (crediting me with some cleverness) or by recognizing the half-frozen metaphor in a formula, but either way you treat the expression as figurative, and the figure as meaningful (implicating some less-than-full qualifications for filling some role);

the figure has form as well as content; "Though I'm not actually qualified to talk about semantics authoritatively, I make pronouncements on meaning on Language Log anyway" is not an instance of the Play One snowclone, though it communicates much the same thing as "I am not a semanticist, though I play one at Language Log Plaza";

this form is neither completely fixed (as in frozen idioms like "by and large") nor subject to many variations (as in take-offs on book or movie titles, a topic I'll get to shortly); like many idioms, it has a lot of fixed stuff and some variable slots (the idiom/snowclone borderline I'll take up on another occasion);

you can use the figure without much thought; you get it "off the shelf", and real creativity (even at the level of the pun) is not required;

you can use the figure without any appreciation of its origin; in fact, for many snowclones the original model is hard to determine.

The Eye Guy examples I've already given do have form, but as far as I can tell the figure supplies no content of its own; the figure is, as I've already suggested above, enormously variable; I read all the examples of it I've found as consciously crafted, rather than fleshings-out of prefab skeletons; and it's hard to imagine anyone using the figure without an appreciation of its origin.  The Eye Guy figure is certainly formulaic language, but it's not a good snowclone at all.  I'd put in the category of "playful allusions", a category that includes puns and variations on fixed expressions.

Playful allusions are heavy on the ground in certain contexts: they're much used in advertising (a lot of the data that Elizabeth Zwicky and I collected for our 1986 piece on imperfect puns -- "Imperfect puns, markedness, and phonological similarity: With fronds like these, who needs anemones?", Folia Linguistica 20.3-4.493-503 -- came from advertising rather than jokes), and headline writers for feature stories are fond of them (perhaps over-fond, as Geoff Pullum keeps pointing out about stupid headlines on stories about language).  The people who name porn flicks are also in love with playful allusions to idioms, titles, and other fixed expressions.  Here's a sampling of such allusions from the Adam Gay Video Directory 2005 (Knight Publishing Corp., Los Angeles):

mostly simple puns, alluding to idioms, clichés, common collocations, and occasionally proper names and titles, and introducing sexual content to them: Ace in the Hole, Ace of Spades (which I'm sorry to say features black men), Big Ben, Camp Out, Giant,  Grand Slam (starring Max Grand), Hard at Work, Longshot, Moving Men, Perfect Fit, Quarterback Sack, Red Hot Pokers, Service Trade (punning sexually on both words), Standing Erect, Stiff as a Board, Stone Fox (starring Eddie Stone), Stud Farm, Take It Like a Man, Uncut Timber;

imperfect puns, mostly on titles: Bang of Brothers (Band of Brothers), Hot Throb ("heart throb"), Rear Factor (Fear Factor), A Rim with a View (A Room with a View), Semper Bi (semper fi), Zak Attack ("Mac attack", and starring Zak Spears);

variations by substitution, often with punning as well: The Agony of Ecstasy (probably alluding to, and blending, both "the agony of defeat" and The Agony and the Ecstasy), American Porn Star (explicitly modeled on American Idol), Dear Dick (the main character is an advice columnist), Greek Holiday (Roman Holiday), A Man's Tail (A Boy's Tale, plus doubly punning "tail": "tail" 'posterior, ass, butt', and a merman, complete with tail, as a major character).

The Eye Guy examples are a lot like this last set of playful allusions.  But before I trot out more Eye Guys, a few words about the title Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

"Queer eye for the straight guy" is a little poem, one line of highly structured tetrameter.  It has the form

Adj1 N1 for the Adj2 N2

exhibiting syntactic parallelism, and within the paired nominals, having Adj1 and Adj2 semantically paired, by opposition (queer vs. straight), and N1 and N2 phonologically paired, by rhyme (/aj/).  The expression is dense with linguistic organization.

(Why, you ask, "queer" instead of "gay"?  At least three possible motivations.  One, "queer" is trendier than "gay"; there are a lot of people who think that "queer" is the successor to "gay" in much the same way that "gay" was the successor to "homosexual".  Two, some people think that "queer" is more inclusive and less sexualized than "gay".  Third, "queer" and "straight" are similar in phonological structure -- both with initial consonant clusters (/kw/ and /str/) and a closed syllable (in /r/ and /t/) -- while "gay", with its single initial consonant and open syllable, is less similar to "straight".  Ok, I grant that "gay" and "straight" have the same vowel, but I think that "queer" wins on points.)

Next, there's a double sense to the definite article in "the straight guy"; it's both generic and individual.  First, the Fab Five propose to improve the lives of straight men in general.  But, then, on each show they make over one particular man, the straight guy for that show.

Finally, an oddity of "queer eye for the straight guy": it's understood as having an indefinite article, 'a queer eye for the straight guy'.  Singular count nouns like "eye" normally can't occur without a preceding determiner (not "I saw eye", but instead "I saw a/one/the/this/its eye").  However, one place where articles, indefinite or definite, can be omitted from NPs with singular count heads is at the very beginning of (but not inside) titles: Band of Brothers, Day of the Dead, Dead Ringer, End Zone, Pretty Woman, Roman Holiday, Small World.  Omitting the indefinite article in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy signals that it's a title, not an ordinary expression of English.  It also allows the title to begin with an accented syllable, which might be seen as making it "punchier" -- more masculine, in fact.  (A major subtext of the show is how much the Fab Five share with the guys they make over, just by virtue of all being men.)

Ok, if you're going to vary Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, what's available?   Some small stuff: you can make the indefinite article explicit, and one or both of the Ns can be plural rather than singular (if N2 is plural, then it no longer has to have the definite article).  Both of these adjustments are made in

(1)  A queer eye for Nazi guys Why is the London Lesbian and Gay film festival celebrating the works of a Nazi film-maker? B Ruby Rich Friday March 12, 2004 (link)

in which we also see a substution for Adj2, "Nazi" for "straight".  Adj2 is also replaced in:

(2)  "Queer eye for the dead guy" (caption for New Yorker cartoon, p. 650 in Complete Cartoons)

(3)  "Queer Eye for the Santa Guy" (title of piece in The Advocate, 12/21/04, p. 58, by Carson Kressley, one of the Fab Five)

(4)  "'Queer Eye' for Wine Guys (and Gals)" (Fox News article featuring Queer Eye's Ted Allen offering wine advice)

(5)  Queer Eye for the Green Guy. Yes, clothes really do make the activist. By Lou Bendrick. 03 Mar 2005.  (link)

(6)  Queer Eyes for the Spanish Guys (2003 gay porn video from Big City Video; note that here "eye for" has an appreciation sense, as in "have an eye for something")

In a step further away from the model, both Adj1 and Adj2 can be replaced:

(7)  "Homosapien eye for the Neanderthal guy" (caption for 1/24/04 "Speed Bump" cartoon)

(8)  Playing the Daddy card was part of the Kerry makeover by the Clintonistas -- Bubba eye for the Brahmin guy.  (Maureen Dowd op-ed column, "Getting Junior's Goat", New York Times 10/7/04, p. A31; the make-over sense is maintained, but advice-giving from someone alluded to by the subject NP is not)

Still sticking fairly close to the model, N2 can be replaced, in the examples below losing the rhyme to N1:

(9)  "Queer Eye for the Straight Girl" (Bravo spinoff of the original)

(10)  "Queer eye for the straight pimp" cartoon (link)

Or the whole second NP can be replaced, either by something that still rhymes with "eye" --

(11)  Queer Eye for the GI (All Worlds Video gay porn film; appreciation "eye for" again)

or, more distantly, by something that does not:

(12)  ... the 96-page glossy, cocktail-table magazine, New York Dog, debuted, featuring a dog psychology advice column, dog horoscopes and dog obituaries, along with such articles as the makeover-inspiring "Queer Eye for the Scruffy Dog." (Chuck Shepherd, "News of the Weird", Funny Times of January 2005, p. 15)

Then there's a whole series of variations in which "straight" and  "queer" are (I hate to say it) inverted, sometimes preserving N1 and N2 --

(13)  Straight Eye for the Queer Guy Watch thousands of short films; see exclusive interviews with big-name directors, producers and writers. (link)

sometimes replacing N2 by another noun --

(14)  Straight eye for the queer gals Why do men love to see women kissing? It's about self-loathing -- and the lusciousness of the female body. (link -- appreciation sense again)

and sometimes switching the two NPs as wholes --

(15)  Straight guys for gay eyes (Unzipped ad, October 2005, p. 69,  for "straight porn for gay men" at sg4ge.com; more appreciation, now involving goal/purpose "for")

Finally, two occurrences of "straight eye for the Y guy", with "straight" as Adj1 and some Y other than "queer" as Adj2:

(16)  Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Straight Eye for The Straight Guy: ... (link)

(17)  Straight Eye for the Consumer Guy Dan Friedman. The second most obvious trend in television -- next to the sudden popularity of so-called 'Reality' TV -- has ... (link)

These are just fortuitous finds, plus some examples on only the first few pages of the results of googling on "queer eye for" and "straight eye for", which of course will yield only variants pretty close to the model.  Eventually more distant variants will turn up, I have no doubt.  I certainly don't see any template emerging in the data.

My impression is that the function of the Eye Guy figure is largely to allude to the title Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  A fair number of the variations alter the semantics of the model significantly, so that the main effect of using the figure is to call attention to the writer's cleverness; several are transparently jokes, and most of the rest seem to be more eye-catching than informative.  Just the sort of thing that so annoyed Geoff Pullum in those headlines from science writing, and not particularly snowclonish.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 18, 2005 08:36 PM