October 12, 2005

Playing one

She's not a linguist, but she sometimes plays one in e-mail.  That would be my old friend Benita Bendon Campbell, who's taken up snowclone hunting as a hobby and (on 10/6/05) turned up this one in Hendrik Hertzberg's Talk of the Town comment "Rain and Fire" in the 10/3 New Yorker (p. 39):

The film, "Last Best Chance," was a bit unusual, too.  You might even say it isn't really a movie at all--it just plays one on TV.

We seem not to have commented on the Play One snowclone here on Language Log, though two of us have used it.  Back on 5/7/05, in "Not to or to not", I asked for mercy via Play One:

I am not a semanticist, though I play one at Language Log Plaza, so go easy on me here.

And a year ago (on 10/15/04), in "Ceci n'est pas un Bushism", Eric Bakovic qualified his claims to expertise in a similar way:

... keep in mind, I'm not a syntactician (but I have been known to play one in the past).

A web Google search on "play one on tv" gets ca. 146,000 pages, "plays one on tv" another 27,000, "played one on tv" a  further 14,200, and "playing one on tv" a final 905.  Certainly a popular turn of phrase!  Most of the hits are like

I'm not X, but/though I play one on TV.
I'm not X, I just play one on TV.

with a variety of subjects and a variety of verb forms in the second clause:

You're not a porn star; you just play one on TV
It's not real news, but it plays one on TV.

(Note that one as the anaphor in the second clause seems to be fixed, since it's used even when it's not appropriate for its antecedent: "real news".... "one".)  Interrogative variants -- "Are you X, or do you (just) play one on TV" -- are also possible.

X is mostly the indefinite article a(n) plus a nominal denoting an identity, usually one that is either valued or scorned:

Leftist, programmer, soldier, blogger, doctor, worker, retarded person, nerd, reporter, attorney, politician, woman, porn star, hypocrite, journal, badass, real lawyer,...

though there are also occurrences of definite NPs ("the President"), bare NPs ("President"), and adjectives ("Russian", "Hawaiian").  For the adjectives, again, the anaphor one is used even though it's not strictly appropriate: "I'm not Russian, but I play one on TV."

Finally, though "on TV" (often not to be taken literally) is the usual location specified -- I assume that this was the original version of the formula, though I haven't traced the history -- all sorts of other locations are possible (on the net, on some specific newsgroup, mailing list, or blog, at work, etc.), and, as in the quote from Eric, it isn't even necessary to specify a location.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 12, 2005 04:28 PM