November 16, 2005

Eating, drinking, sleeping snowclones, part 2: the early years

In our last installment we catalogued the efflorescence of the "X eats, drinks, and sleeps Y" snowclone in its multitudinous forms, culled from a century or so of American newspaper appearances. Now we take a look at some "proto-snowclones" that illustrate the early roots of the formation.

What distinguishes the modern form of the snowclone is the piling together of various common verbs relating to everyday life (eat, drink, sleep, think, dream, live, breathe, etc.) in a transitive formation, where the object of the conjoined verbs constitutes some sort of obsessive fixation, one that overwhelms the subject's daily activities. So far the earliest clear-cut examples I've found come from the 1870s:

"The Risks of the Stocking Trade," Chester (Pa.) Daily Times, Aug. 5, 1878, p. 1/3
My whole existence is one elongated hose. I eat, sleep, drink and think stockings.

Julian Hawthorne, "A Feast of Blood," The Galaxy, Vol. 16, Issue 3, Sep. 1873, p. 405/2
The Schläger is the life of the corps system; the corps student talks, eats, sleeps, drinks Schläger.
[Text available via Making of America at Cornell; the "Schläger" is a German fencing blade.]

A citation from 1863 doesn't quite fit the canonical modern form but bears a strong family resemblance:

John Cumming, Moses right, and Bishop Colenso wrong. New York: J. Bradburn, 1863, pp. 152-3
The unhappy prelate breathes doubts, and eats doubts, and lives in doubts, till doubts seem to be assimilated to, and incorporated with his very nature.
[Text available via Making of America at Univ. of Michigan.]

Here we have "doubts" as the consuming force, overtaking the breathing and eating of Bishop Colenso (the unhappy prelate). The object is repeated for emphasis across the conjuncts, a variant pattern I noted in the previous post. But the third conjunct, "lives in doubts," is intransitive (or quasi-transitive), somewhat spoiling the parallelism with "breathes doubts" and "eats doubts." This is therefore a hybrid form, featuring the idiomatic transitive usage for the first two conjuncts and a more typical intransitive for the third.

Continuing our reverse chronology, here is an 1814 example (from Chadwyck's Literature Online database) that also appears to be a hybrid case:

Maria Edgeworth, Patronage, 1814, p. 270
I am sure the profession of the law has not contracted his heart, and yet you never saw or can conceive a man more intent upon his business.—I believe he eats, drinks, and sleeps upon law; he has the reputation, in consequence, of being one of the soundest of our lawyers—the best opinion in England.
[Text also available in a later anthology via Google Print.]

As with the 1863 example, the first two transitive conjuncts, "eats (law)" and "drinks (law)," are matched by a quasi-transitive, "sleeps upon law." The idiomatic transitive use of sleep appearing in the modern versions of the snowclone does not seem to have developed yet. It's also possible to interpret "upon" as shared by all three conjuncts: "eats (upon law)," "drinks (upon law)," and "sleeps upon law."

Earlier forerunners rely entirely on intransitive or quasi-transitive verbs, with the object preceded by a preposition. Here are two more citations from Literature Online (thanks to Mark Liberman for the latter):

Edward Thompson, "The Courtesan," from The Court of Cupid, 1770, p. 70
Be thou my Muse; in spite of pedant fools
Who walk, eat, drink, and sleep by college rules.

Catherine Jemmat, "The Choice," from The Memoirs, 1762, p. 115
And let him be no learned fool,
That nods o'er musty books;
Who eats and drinks and lives by rule,
And waves my words and looks.

The similarity of these two versified examples is striking, with the everyday activities of learned or pedant fools (and their musty books!) governed entirely by rules. Have we reached the ultimate source of the snowclone? Probably not, as the historical horizon for such research only seems to recede further and further, thanks to ever-expanding digital databases.

One final note: Brett Reynolds points out via email one of the pitfalls of relying solely on electronic databases of mainstream newspapers and print literature. A common variant on the "eating, drinking, sleeping" snowclone has "shitting" as a conjunct (usually in final position). Fortunately, Google readily fills the gap:

Your entire country eats, drinks and shits rugby and yet you haven't won a World Cup since '87.
If we lose, we blame it on the computer, not on the 54 year-old man who eats, sleeps, drinks, and shits video games.
We found a retired guy who lives in northern Wisconsin who lives, breathes, eats, sleeps and shits classic Mustangs.
He loves music and he lives, breathes, eats and shits music so God Bless Him.
Metallica lives, eats, breathes, sleeps, and shits their music.

[Update: At least one reference book has taken notice of the snowclone: Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable has an entry for eat, drink and sleep something. No discussion of the expression's history or variant forms, though it does mention the 1996 ad campaign by Coca Cola during the European (Football) Championship: "Eat football, sleep football, drink Coca Cola."]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 16, 2005 01:47 AM