March 25, 2008

X as the Y of Z, again

In response to our recent MT funfest, Peter McBurney  wrote:

Your post reminded me of a funny experience from my management consulting days. In the early 1990s, we submitted a proposal to the Government of Uruguay to advise on reform of their telecommunications market. Our proposal included the sentence, "Uruguay has been called the Switzerland of South America".

Our proposal was unsuccessful, but shortly afterwards we were invited to make a similar proposal to the Greek Government. With a word processor, we were able to make a few edits to the text and submit it anew. Only after submission did we notice that we'd somehow written, "Greece has been called the Switzerland of South America".

To avoid these little cut-and-paste or search-and-replace embarrassments, it certainly be would be more convenient if we could just say "X is the Y of its superordinate category", in instances of the phrasal template "X is the Y of Z" (previously discussed here).

In any case, a quick web search reveals that Uruguay is far from alone in being identified as "the Switzerland of South America":

[Bariloche, Argentine] features forests, spectacular glaciers, and mountains surrounding gorgeous lakes, earning its nickname, "the Switzerland of South America."

Puerto Montt is the capital of Chile's exquisite lake district, the "Switzerland of South America."

[Ecuador] is truly the land of eternal springtime, and the "Switzerland of South America."

Ushuaia is often referred to as "Argentine Switzerland" or the "Switzerland of South America"

Lebanon was once called "The Switzerland of the Middle East" and Chile the "Switzerland of South America."

[Puerto Varas, Chile] is known as the "Switzerland of South America," ...

And Isaiah Bowman, South America: A Geography Reader, 1915, puts forward a case where the relation is symmetric, at least in the sense that X is the Y of Y's superordinate category at the same time that Y is the X of  X's superordinate category:

For this reason Bolivia is sometimes called the "Switzerland of South America", but it would be more nearly correct to call Switzerland the Bolivia of Europe ...

Web search reveals that Guinea, Uganda, Swaziland, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Burundi, Lesotho, Rwanda, and Zaire are among the places called "the Switzerland of Africa".

A search for {"the Switzerland of"} turns up 34,400 hits, many of them not at all geographical. For example, {"The Switzerland of * software"} alone yields 4,900 hits.

And we would be remiss in failing to note that Liechtenstein is sometimes called "the Switzerland of Switzerland".

Of course, it's not only Switzerland that places the role of Y in geographical snowclones of the form X is the Y of Z. It's well know, for example, that Belgium is the New Jersey of Europe -- except that web search shows that France, Holland, Albania, Wales, England, and Russia are all competitors for this title.

There are 101,000 hits for {"the Athens of"}: Lexington (KY) was once known as "the Athens of the West", and Nashville (TN) has often been called "the Athens of the South"; while "the Athens of the North" is Edinburgh (Scotland) , unless it's Munich, Vilnius (Lithuania), or Belfast (Northern Ireland); and "the Athens of the East" might be Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (Syria), or Madurai (India), among others. "The Athens of America" is what some (Bostonians?) call Boston. The "Athens of Africa" might be Fez, Dakar, Freetown, Timbuktu, or Cyrene.

Bringing the strands together, we find that Zurich and Basel compete for the title of "the Athens of Switzerland", but no page indexed by Google has yet speculated as the identity of "the Switzerland of Athens". (However, "the Switzerland of Greece" is variously identified as Evritania, Karpenissi, or Arcadia.)

And we can also learn on the web that PsyBlog is "the Language Log of psychology, maybe", while Savage Minds "bids fair to be the Language Log of anthropology".

[Update -- Geoff Nunberg writes:

A Roman friend of mine used to refer to Rome as the Switzerland of Africa.


[Faith Jones writes:

Vilnius is the Athens of the north? Must be the goyish Vilnius. Vilne, Jewish Vilnius, was the Jerusalem of Lithuania. In Yiddish you can refer to "Yerushalayim de-Lite" (ירושלים דליטע) without further explanation. It only refers to pre-1941 Vilne, however.

Point taken. But I didn't make it up -- just search {Vilnius "Athens of the North"}.]

[Andrew Wilkinson adds another dimension:

All this (semi-confusing but puzzle-outable) talk on Language Log about Canadas of regions being one of a variety of other regions, or possibly also being Canada themselves, unless reminded me of the most outrageous Trivial Pursuit question I ever had to answer (bear in mind that I was a kid and didn't even know what two of the proper nouns referred to):

"What German city do Italians call the Monaco of Bavaria?"

My stock Trivial Pursuit answer of "Arnold Schwarzenegger" didn't fly; apparently it is actually Munich. But to this day it remains my personal favorite of obtuse, spurious trivia, and it seems to me that it adds a fourth, more confusing and surreal dimension to the three-part snowclone in your previous examples.

By the way, the Athens of the U.S. is of course well known to be Ann Arbor, Michigan -- don't know how anyone could think otherwise.


[Bob Ladd explains:

I can't resist responding to two things in this post.

First, the standard put-down response to anyone who refers to Edinburgh as "the Athens of the North" is that it is really more like "the Reykjavik of the South" (Google suggests that the line originated in a Tom Stoppard play). I think this must say something interesting about the semantics (or pragmatics) of the "X is the Y of Z" construction, but Geoff Pullum has taken away my semanticist's license so I won't pursue that thought.

I'm on surer ground demystifying the "Monaco of Bavaria" business. There is nothing "confusing and surreal" about this at all, and it's not, as Andrew Wilkinson suggests, "obtuse, spurious trivia", just a true but boring fact about constructing unambiguous referring expressions. Here's the story: the city known to the Germans as Muenchen has had its name adapted in some other languages, like "Munich" in English and French and "Monaco" in Italian. (Italian also adapts several other German city names, including Stuttgart as Stoccarda and Leipzig as Lipsia). So this means that Italians have occasion to refer to two different cities called (in Italian) Monaco, one a bit west of Genoa (or Genova) and one rather farther north of Venice (or Venezia). Just as Americans talk about Portland Maine and Portland Oregon, and Germans have to distinguish Frankfurt am Main from Frankfurt an der Oder, Italians distinguish the two places called Monaco, when it's not clear from the context, by specifying that one of them is in Bavaria. The guy who made up the Trivial Pursuit question was either uninformed or else just having some fun with the way he phrased the question.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 25, 2008 06:53 PM