March 13, 2006

Snowclone Mountain?

As Mark Liberman just noted, the coining of the playful "Spongeback Mountain" (blending two titles, "Brokeback Mountain" for a movie about two cowboys in love and lust, and "SpongeBob SquarePants" for a children's television show about two undersea characters that a few critics have seen as in a homoerotically tinged relationship) has a snowclonish feel to it.  Perhaps we're seeing the birth of an X-back Mountain snowclone.

Well, I don't think we're there yet.  "Spongeback Mountain" is just one of a number of variations on "Brokeback Mountain" that people have come up with since the movie opened last year, and only a few of these variations are of the form "X-back Mountain".  It looks like we're still in the playful allusion stage, as I argued for the Eye Guy figure a while back, in a posting titled "Critical tone for a new snowclone" (the title exemplifying a very distant variant on the original, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy").  The history of a snowclone involves two separate points at which expressions are fixed in form:  a first fixing, in an expression with little variation, and then after a period of creative variations on this formula, a second fixing as a relatively invariant prefab template with open slots, that is, a snowclone.  But not every expression makes it to the second fixing; only some finish the snowcloning process.

As for "Brokeback Mountain", there are three variants that can arise from people's (unconsciously) reshaping brokeback to something that makes more sense to them:  in order of descending frequency, "Brokenback Mountain", "Bareback Mountain", and "Breakback Mountain".  The first and third represent "corrections" of the nonstandard broke, and the second looks like an eggcorn, especially for someone who knows even the barest outline of the plot of the movie.

"Bareback Mountain" also has a large number of occurrences that are clearly deliberate plays on "Brokeback Mountain".  And it's of the form "X-back Mountain".  As are "Buttback Mountain" and "Boneback Mountain" (also with a sexual allusion), for each of which there's a handful of jocular uses.

But most of the variants I've found vary something other than the "Broke" slot, or vary something in addition to this slot.

First, there's the "Mountain" slot.  This lends itself to the obvious sexual allusion, the imperfect pun "Mounting" or the perfect pun "Mountin'".  Thousands of occurrences of "Brokeback Mountin'" and hundreds of "Brokeback Mounting".  The "X-back Mountain" versions with broke "corrected" also occur with puns on mountain: a few of "Brokenback Mounting", one jesting "Brokenback Mountin'"; and a few of "Breakback Mounting".  And, of course, a HUGE number of "Bareback Mounting" and "Bareback Mountin'", with the sexual reference in both words of the title.

[Added 3/14/06: Over on soc.motss, Gwendolyn Alden Dean has suggested an RCMP movie "Brokeback Mounties".  There are a modest number of web hits.]

There is also at least one variant in which the whole first word is varied: "Backdoor Mountain".  This preserves the prosodic structure of brokeback, and its initial /b/, and pounds in an allusion to anal intercourse.  Hundreds of occurrences, plus a dozen or so each of the doubly sexual "Backdoor Mounting" and "Backdoor Mountin'".

Then there's the "back" slot to vary, usually with break in the "Broke" slot.  With reference to the movie: a hundred or so each of "Breakthrough Mountain" and "Breakdance Mountain", plus small numbers of "Breakup Mountain", "Breakfront Mountain" (once with reference to Will and Grace), "Breakout Mountain", and "Breakbone Mountain".  Plus a hundred or so occurrences of "Brokedown Mountain".

I don't see a snowclone here.  I just see people playing with every part of the movie title they can, especially in ways that add sexual reference.

Now, if you look back at my postings last year on snowclones, you'll see a lot of stuff (especially in October) about distinguishing snowclones from other kinds of formulaic language.  Here's how I now see the development:

Pre-formula stage: an idea is expressed in various ways, say "what one person likes, another person detests", "things that please some people repel others", etc.  All of these expressions are understood literally, require no special knowledge (beyond knowledge of the language) to understand, and can be created on the spot.

First fixing: somebody produces an especially apt way of expressing the idea, uses an effective metaphor, or devises a memorable title or name.  This expression, which is essentially fixed in form, then spreads, and gains currency as a cliché, catch phrase, proverb, quotation, or well-known title or name.  "One man's meat is another man's poison", for instance.  Or the movie title "Brokeback Mountain".

Variation on the fixed expression: the fixed expression may quickly extend by developing open slots, or by playful allusion to it (via puns or other variations of it).  "One man's Mede is another man's Persian", for instance.  In many cases, every part of the fixed expression that can be varied for effect is, by somebody or other.

Snowcloning (the second fixing): these variants become (relatively) fixed as formulas with open slots in them, as in "One man's X is another man's Y".  It's still possible to play creatively with the expression (just as we can play creatively with idioms), but most occurrences of variants will fit the template.  I don't think we're there yet with the "Brokeback Mountain" variants, and I suspect that (as with the Eye Guy variants) we'll never get there; once the movie and the television show recede from the front stage of popular culture, these variants will be seen as quaint relics of the past.

I don't want to give the impression that the four stages can be crisply distinguished.  As with all historical changes, things proceed differently for different people; the resources of earlier stages will usually still be available at later ones; and there will be some borderline cases.  For instance, as I said last May in "An Avalanchlet of Snowclones":

... the line between clichés, some of which can have open slots (the wonderful world of X, as in the wonderful world of snowclones...), and the somewhat more complex classic snowclones, like the X have N words for Y (which gave the genus its name), is not at all clear.  Probably it's like the line between idioms and constructions: there are pretty clear examples at the extremes (the idiom by and large, the construction Subject Auxiliary Inversion), but [there's also] a range of intermediate types, with varying degrees and kinds of freedom as to what can fill the slots in the pattern and with varying degrees of semantic and pragmatic specialization.

But it isn't all fuzziness.  Sometimes you can feel pretty sure that things are in stage 3 for pretty much everybody.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 13, 2006 02:54 PM