March 23, 2006

I found my snowclone in Palo Alto

Continuing our discussion of what's a snowclone and what's just a lot of playful allusion to and creative variation on some original (most recently: X-back Mountain?), I take up the legend on a flyer for the Artfibers Yarn Millshop in San Francisco, presented to me in Palo Alto on 3/21/06 by several friends who'd just been there:

I found my yarn in San Francisco.

I think there is a snowclone here, Left in San Francisco, of the form "I left my X in San Francisco" and based on the song title "I Left My Heart in San Francisco".  But I also think that the Artfibers sentence is not an instance of it, but a bit of fresh play on the song title.  Formulaic variants and novel variants can coexist.

The song has lyrics by Douglas Cross and was made famous in a recording by Tony Bennett (a chart hit in 1962), but was also recorded notably by Frank Sinatra.   A Google web search on

"I left my" "in San Francisco" -heart

on 3/21/06 pulled up ca. 42,300 hits.  I looked at the first hundred and excluded those that seemed ONLY to be saying that the writer had left something in San Francisco (many were reporting such an event but also pretty clearly alluding to the song).  There were 36 different fillers for the "heart" slot, which is a pretty impressive diversity:

    Fillers phonologically similar to heart: hearts [an arcane reference involving Cthulhu], art, fart, hat, cart, harp, parts, hearth, Hart (9)

    Other organs or body parts: stomach, neck, calves, ribs, nervous system, liver, schnozze, brain, ankle (9)

    Other song titles: blues [Buddy Guy, "I Left My Blues in San Francisco"], gun [Butt Trumpet, "I Left My Gun in San Francisco"] (2)

    Others: wallet, Duracell, mini, iPod, lunch, phone, pug, signs, plot continuity, Jell-O, passport, majority, shoes, MTV, blog, coke (16)

There are some examples with subjects other than "I", most of them personal pronouns (plus a modest number of examples with subject "Tony Bennett", "Tony", or "Bennett"); almost all of these, however, have "heart(s)" in the object slot.  So these look like occasional independent variations on the song title.  Most of the variation is in the object, rather than the subject.

The Artfibers slogan varies both the verb and the object.  When you try verbs other than "left", however, the diversity of objects disappears.  The first hundred hits for "I lost my X in San Francisco" have only three different objects in relevant examples: heart [of course], dart [phonologically similar to heart], mind [arguably an organ].  There are also some examples with the preposition to instead of in: "I lost my heart to San Francisco".  Finally, with the verb "found", the first hundred hits have only two different objects in relevant examples: heart [of course; also mostly in the book title I Found My Heart in San Francisco], art [phonologically similar to heart].  ("Yarn" didn't happen to come up in the first hundred hits.  Note that yarn is phonologically similar to heart.)

It looks like we have a formula "I left my X in San Francisco", with considerable diversity in what occurs in the X slot; about half the examples are neither phonologically nor semantically related to the original.  The formula allows a certain amount of play with the subject.  But examples with the verb varied show little diversity in their objects, and stick to objects that are phonologically or semantically related to heart.  These look like novel plays on the song title, not instances of a formula.

There is, however, a second formula based on the song title: "I left my heart in X", where X is a location.  There's a huge diversity in locations; of the first TWENTY hits for

"I left my heart in" -"San Francisco"

(which yielded ca. 110,000 raw webhits), there were at least fifteen different locations: Cincinnati, Hawaii, Nova Scotia, Boston, Amalfi, New Brunswick, San Antonio, Texas, Limbe, Iran, Isla Vista, Chicago, Costa Rica, Paradise, Europe.  We pretty clearly have a second snowclone based on the song title.

It won't work to vary both the object and the location, of course, to get something like "I left my jazz in Cincinnati".  The result will just be interpreted literally.  You might possibly get away with "I found my snowclone in Palo Alto", because the object "snowclone" is a big ol' flag and because Palo Alto is prosodically similar to San Francisco and names a city in the Bay Area. Well, maybe I might get away with it.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 23, 2006 07:00 PM