September 23, 2007

On the fringes of snowclonia

Snowclones are language patterns with open slots which are in some sense formulaic, but as we've noted over the years here on Language Log, there are all sorts of language patterns like this: syntactic constructions, idioms, clichés, catchphrases, riddle and joke forms, poetic forms, and more.  People also make playful allusions to idioms, clichés, quotations, and titles, varying parts of the models for effect.  So there are all these things that aren't snowclones, and some classic cases that are -- and some more cases on the fringes.  My snowclone omnibuses (here and here) are compendia of candidate (putative or potential) snowclones, things that people have suggested to me might be snowclones, not things I'm certifying are snowclones; each case has to be looked at on its own.  (Unfortunately, the putative cases pile up faster than I can deal with them.)  Today I'll look at some cases that have come to my attention recently.

Call Your Office: I argued a while back that "the wonderful world of X" is just a cliché with an open slot. 

Now Ben Zimmer has blogged on "X, call your office", which I at first took to be something similar.  But Ben pointed out that the figure probably has its source in a catchphrase ("Judge Crater, call your office", itself based on earlier literal uses) -- which would make it an instance of the playful allusion type rather than the cliché type -- and his discussion suggested that the figure as a whole contributes some meaning (in my terms, that X is absent from the scene but is relevant to the matter at hand), though some of the occurrences might lack this meaning and be mere playful allusions.

Unsafe In Any Child's Garden: In earlier postings on candidates for snowclonehood, I argued several times that the candidates were just playful allusions to fixed expressions of one kind or another -- for example, here on "X-back mountain" (based on Brokeback Mountain) and here on "X eye for the Y guy" (based on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy).  In both these cases, the formulas contribute no meaning of their own, while the clearest examples of snowclones ("X is the new Y", for instance) do.

Then back in August, Chris Phipps asked me about "unsafe P any X", as in the title of a posting by Mark Liberman: "Journalists' questions: unsafe in any mood?".  This, I replied, was just a playful allusion to Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, and pretty much a one-shot deal at that: there's no significant collection of variations on the title, a collection that would suggest that there's a pattern available for general use here.   Similarly in my use of the title "A child's garden of languages" for a recent posting; the title takes off on Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses.

Over the years I've posted several times about occasions on which all sorts of language play are prominent (in science writing, in teaser headings on the covers of porn magazines).  I intend to post further on these "ludic locales", of which there are many, but my current point is that among the types of language play to be found in them are playful allusions, lots of them, and no one should want to label most of these as snowclones, since virtually any idiom, cliché, quotation, or title can serve as the basis for an allusion.  Many of them combine some other feature of language play with the playful allusion, as in these two examples, where there's some phonological play: "Ground Control to My Imam" (feature title in Harper's, November 2006), alluding to David Bowie's "Ground Control to Major Tom"; and "Take the Money and Rue" (NYT editorial, 9/12/07), alluding to Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run.

Closer to Snowclone Central: Closer in is "on a scale from one to X", as discussed here by Mark Liberman a little while ago.  Mark, cautiously, rated the figure as a 5 on a scale from one to snowclone, though others might accord it a higher rating.

Meanwhile, I just noticed "from X's lips/mouth to God's ear" in a posting of Geoff Pullum's: "From [Stanley] Fish's mouth to God's ear."  Substantial number of hits, but it's not at all clear what people are using the figure to convey: there are some occurrences of "from your lips to God's ear" that seem to convey nothing more than that God hears everything you say, but in most occurrences of the figure something more complex is going on.

And over on ADS-L I recently started a discussion of "Who are you and what have you done with X?", which I'd contemplated using in a recent posting that mentioned my granddaughter's alarm at being confronted by her mother speaking German: "Who are you and what have you done with my mother?"  The figure is canonically used in situations where the speaker is confronting someone who appears to be X but observes that this person lacks some property or properties historically characteristic of X; think Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Things are a bit tricky, though, because there are perfectly straightforward uses of such expressions, as sequences of ordinary questions.  In any case, everybody seems to think that the figure originated in a specific quotation (not in IBS, so far as I can tell), but so far no one has a good candidate.  And there are lots of instances out there.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 23, 2007 02:54 PM