August 24, 2006

Mutating netlore, from "fuck" to "snakes on a plane"

That Indian spiritual figure Osho may have known how to work a crowd, but his grammatically questionable lecture on the utility of the word fuck is nothing more than a bit of musty netlore. The piece on fuck he's cribbing from has been circulating on the Net in one form or another since at least 1985, and may go back even further in xeroxlore.

A new mutation recently appeared as a tie-in to the movie Snakes on a Plane. Here you'll find all of the same creaky grammatical humor, now repurposed for the catchphrase of the moment.

For anyone who needs a primer on the history of Snakes on a Plane as an Internet meme, see the informative Wikipedia entry. (This is what Wikipedia was made for.) The idea of applying the phrase "snakes on a plane" to a variety of contexts having little or nothing to do with the movie evidently grew out of an Aug. 17, 2005 blog post by screenwriter Josh Friedman, an early disseminator of SoaP buzz:

Snakes on a Motherfucking Plane

It's a title. It's a concept. It's a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It's perfect. Perfect. It's the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles

In fact ... I become obsessed with the concept. Not as a movie. But as a sort of philosophy. Somnewhere in between "Cest la vie", "Whattya gonna do?" and "Shit happens" falls my new zen koan "Snakes on a Plane".

WIFE: "Honey you stepped in dog poop again. "
ME: "Snakes on a Plane..."
DOCTOR: "Your cholesterol is 290. Perhaps you want to mix in a walk once in a while."
ME: "Snakes on a Plane..."
WIFE: "Honey while you were on your cholesterol walk you stepped in dog poop again."

You get the picture.

Sad to say, what seemed wonderfully absurdist a year ago has long since been driven into the ground, particularly through the endless propagation of the "Snakes on an X" snowclone. (Snakes on a Blog has been the main clearinghouse for variations on the SoaP theme.) It all reached tiresome levels long before the movie's release last week. One diamond in the rough, however, is puzzlemaster Francis Heaney's Snakes on a Sudoku, which started off as a one-off puzzle idea on Heaney's blog and eventually turned into a full-fledged book. (It is, in fact, "the official Snakes on a Plane puzzle book." Accept no substitutes.)

[Update #1: Dave Wilton points out that Osho was better known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the leader of the highly controversial Osho-Rajneesh movement. He died in 1990, and the Youtube video is in fact marked as copyright 1984, a year before the earliest Usenet appearance of the piece on the versatility of fuck.]

[Update #2: Ron Hogan wonders if Osho's discourse on the F-bomb might owe something to George Carlin. The piece does bear a family resemblance to Carlin's analysis of shit and fuck in his controversial 1973 monologue, "Filthy Words" (which itself was a revamped version of the equally controversial "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television"). The transcript of "Filthy Words" can be found in the appendix to FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation, the landmark obscenity case sparked by the broadcast of Carlin's routine on Pacifica's New York radio station, WBAI. Note, however, that Carlin never bothered with the grammatical nonsense pervading the netlore/Osho discussion of fuck.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at August 24, 2006 05:18 PM