February 25, 2006

No snowclone left behind

"On rare occasion, a political phrase becomes a template for a variety of causes," writes William Safire in his Sunday "On Language" column. Safire presents two examples of such "template phrases," the first of which is "No X left behind," modeled on "No child left behind." (Safire says the phrase was popularized in 1993 by Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, but he gives ultimate credit to Ronald Reagan in his 1983 remarks to the National Council of Negro Women: "[We] have begun to outline an agenda for excellence in education that will leave no child behind.") The second "template phrase" is "We are all X now," harking back to Milton Friedman's 1965 declaration, "We are all Keynesians now," and echoed by Le Monde after 9/11: "We are all Americans now." The latest iteration is "We are all Danes now," an expression of solidarity with the Danish cartoonists who notoriously caricatured the Prophet Muhammad.

Gee, wouldn't it be great if someone came up with a catchy designation for these "template phrases"? I dunno, something like "snowclones"? Apparently this felicitous LanguageLogism is good enough for the Times of London but not for the Times of New York.

[Update #1: Safire missed a much earlier example of "We are all X now." Some time around 1888 the British Liberal leader Sir William Harcourt is credited as saying, "We are all Socialists now." That would be the obvious model for Friedman's comment about Keynesians, but the recent declarations of transnational empathy ("We are all New Yorkers / Americans / Londoners / Danes now") seem much more evocative of John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.]

[Update #2: Two more predecessors for "We are all X now" (though the first lacks the "now")...

"We are all republicans &mdash we are all federalists." — Thomas Jefferson in his First Inaugural address, 1801 (sent in by Language Hat)

"We are all sons of bitches now." &mdash Trinity A-bomb test director Kenneth Bainbridge to Richard Feynman, 1945, according to James Gleick's Genius (sent in by Blake Stacey)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 25, 2006 03:14 PM