March 21, 2006

It's X's world, we just live in it

Eric Bakovic is understandably puzzled by a sentence in Vanity Fair about Steve Jobs: "It's Steve's gadget- centric world which we just live in". Probing Google for "we just live in" will alert us to the fact that this is an allusion to the snowclone "It's X's world, we just live in it". The first three pages of hits give us these values for X:

Albert [Einstein], Google, a dog, doc [Searls], Sub Pop, Monsanto, Cory, Fellini, Microsoft, Dave Winer, Sinatra, Bill Gates, Choire Sicha, a pet, Sandy, Nancy Grace...

However, I'll confess that I don't know what the origin of this phrase is. [But now I do -- see below.]

The Wikipedia article on the iPod cites a Fortune article titled "It's iPod's Revolution: We Just Live in It" (from August 2005?), which makes even less prima facie sense than the Vanity Fair sentence does. When someone writes something that seems to make no sense at all, these days, a snowclone allusion is at least as likely as a typo or spellcheckism.

[A bit more web search turned up the fact that in the 1993 movie "The Saint of Fort Washington", Jerry, a homeless squeegee man, says to a driver "Hey, thanks a lot. It's your world; we just live in it." I don't know whether this is the original source, or just another allusion.]

[Karl Hagen suggests that the original was Dean Martin on Frank Sinatra: 'It's Frank's world, we just live in it". Some supporting evidence: Michael Sragow in Salon, 11/11/1999, "Being Charlie Kaufman":

To me, "Being John Malkovich" is the satiric ne plus ultra of the headline that became addictive to slick-magazine editors in the '90s: "It's Frank's World, We Just Live In It." (The headline has been used for everyone from Sinatra to Regis Philbin.) Kaufman conceded that what he was doing "is sort of parallel to that. A lot of it comes from the idea of not wanting to be yourself and being envious of other people. There is for sure the idea of looking out in the world and feeling you don't deserve to be there. How do you come to feel you have as much right as anyone else to be on this planet, when you have a barrage of information telling you that you don't have a right to be here, or that you have to change yourself to be allowed to be here? I took each character and on an instinctive level explored how they would react to that anxiety."

I've certainly seen the pattern, though I didn't know the source. However, for me the phrase always suggested the arrogance and egotism of X, not the low self-regard of the writer.]

[And I barely beat Ben Zimmer to the punch -- here's his post, written mere seconds after mine, and much better informed, as you would expect:

Eric Bakovic was stumped by this quote from a recent Vanity Fair article on Steve Jobs, wondering what the "just" was doing in there:

Except that one day in the near recent past everybody woke up and found out that while all the geniuses were blathering on about content this and content that, the media culture had, in fact, come to be dominated by machines. It's Steve's gadget-centric world which we just live in.

Chalk this one up to failed snowcloning. The Vanity Fair writer was clumsily attempting a variation on the old snowclone:

It's X's world -- We just live in it.

This expression has long been associated with Frank Sinatra. In discussion about the snowclone on the American Dialect Society mailing list last year, I found it in use with reference to Sinatra as far back as January 1964, in a newspaper column by Earl Wilson quoting Dean Martin from a few months earlier:

Reno Evening Gazette, January 4, 1964, p. 10
When Dean, Frank and their buddy Sammy Davis Jr. appeared at the Las Vegas Sands' llth anniversary, Dean bowed to Frank and said, "It's your world, Frank; I just live in it."

In the ADS thread Wilson Gray recalled hearing a similar expression in the mid-50's, so it was most likely floating around in various forms long before Dino began using it Sinatra-centrically. The snowclone would be revived again in the early to mid-'90s, when it found its way into pro basketball circles. From there it was popularized by ESPN announcers (Larry Horn called it one of SportsCenter's "tropes in residence"). As used by announcers like Stuart Scott regarding stars like Charles Barkley, the snowclone appeared most frequently with the progressive form of "live" ("...I'm/we're just livin' in it"), in keeping with African American English verbal patterns.

So where did the Vanity Fair version of the snowclone go wrong? It would have been more recognizable if the typical snowclone template had been used: "It's Steve's (gadget-centric) world; we just live in it."  But for some reason the writer felt compelled to work this into an awkward relative-clause construction: "It's Steve's gadget-centric world which we just live in." Nobody says it this way: a Google search on "It's X's world which we just live in" finds quotes from the Vanity Fair article and nothing else. Considering the enormous range of usage encompassed by Google, that's a very bad sign. It's possible that this was a revision made by an editor unfamiliar with the snowclone, but it has been rendered utterly un-idiomatic.

[Ben Zimmer]


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 21, 2006 08:07 PM