October 31, 2007

I am neither America nor a snowclone

It's been over a month since I last issued this edict.  Here's the Halloween version:

Not every reworking of an idiom, cliché, proverb, catchphrase, memorable quotation, or title represents a snowclone.  In fact, most such reworkings are just playful allusions to the original.

I say this because Mark Liberman reported a reworking of the Colbert title I Am America (And So Can You!) as She's Famous (And So Can You) and labeled it a new snowclone, and then Geoff Pullum followed up with yet another variation on the Colbert theme, Colbert for President, and you can too.  There's no snowclone here, and there probably never will be one -- just people riffing on a notable syntactic peculiarity of the original, Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE) in which the base form be is omitted (for details, look here).

As I've said several times in the past, clear snowclones are themselves formulas, and the snowclone template itself contributes meaning to instances of the snowclone.  Here's a summary from my website (based on a Language Log posting from 2005):

[Snowclones] have two-part histories, a first phase in which a fixed model gains currency, a second in which variations are played on the model, sometimes leading to a second fixing, a crystallization of these playful allusions into a snowclone.

... Sometimes, every part of the model that can be varied for effect is:

Eye Guy: Queer Eyes for the Spanish Guys, Straight guys for gay eyes, Homosapien eye for the Neanderthal guy

Brokeback: Backdoor Mounting, Breakdance Mountain, Brokeback Mounties

In snowcloning, these variants become fixed as formulas with open slots in them, and with a mostly calculable meaning: [e.g.] One man's X is another man's Y.  It's still possible to play creatively with the expression, but most variants will fit the template.

So far we have two variants on the Colbert title (surely there will be more), and they share almost nothing but the conjunctive form and the odd VPE.  It's hard to see how this thing could settle into a formula with (a few) open slots in it, and even harder to imagine what the semantic contribution of the formula would be.  This looks like another Eye Guy or Brokeback case, not like that warhorse of Snowclonia, The New Y (X is the new Y).

As I've also said several times, playful allusions to formulaic expressions are incredibly common.  Here are a few more from various sources:

Teachers Sold Separately (Harper's, November 2006)
The Kids Are Far Right (ditto)
A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (recent book)

(Some involve imperfect puns, some do not.)  There's no point in trying to collect these things, because new ones crop up every day; you'd soon end up with tens or hundreds of thousands of them -- none of them formulas.

Now, there ARE hard-to-decide cases, and I'll return to some of them in a later posting.  But there are also plenty of clear cases, and at least for the moment it looks like variation on the Colbert title is one of them: clearly not a snowclone.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 31, 2007 08:05 PM