No, they aren’t dyed icy treats or Siberian super storms. A snowclone is the name of a linguistic structure so common you probably use it everyday but never knew it was an actual ‘thing’.

Snowclones, by definition, are infinitely customizable verbal clichés that represent universal relationships between variants. These variants can be represented with X and Y. Some common examples include:

X is the new Y

Putting the X in Y

Not the Xiest Y of the Z

And so on and so forth.

Regardless of what is substituted for X and Y, their relationship remains the same, working on the same level as a metaphor. Yet rather than synthesize your own unique comparison, you unconsciously utilize these ready-made structures to communicate your ideas. It’s fast, simple and instantly recognizable.

In the last two decades, with the advent of Internet culture, the usage of snowclones in everyday speech has skyrocketed because of the exponential growth in the speed at which ideas can be reproduced. The product of this are meme’s, which are heavily circulated pictures paired with short phrases to express an idea or attitude. Meme’s often start out as snowclones, or with the snowballing effect of social networking mediums, become them.tumblr_lxbb9dIigV1r1hn1no1_500

Snowclones draw their origins from a wide variety of influences, everywhere from popular music to movies and even classical literature (to X or not to  X?). However, oftentimes their usages diverge from their original context, which is where they can become problematic.

Plato would have some serious beef with snowclones.  According to Plato the act of  mimesis, or the replication of ideas as they are passed through society, dilutes the meaning of the ideas and with each degree of separation, deviates further from truth. In his landmark philosophical dialectic “The Republic” he uses the allegory of the cave to demonstrate this concept.

A bunch of people are chained, sitting in a cave. They just sit around and stare at shadows cast on the wall reflected by light from the caves opening. Because they believe the shadows are real, they never try leave the cave.

When we depend too heavily on snowclones we lose touch with our own ability to synthesize ideas. Oftentimes, snowclones are misused in a way that doesn’t make sense, just because they are rhetorically catchy. This is the inherent problem with a culture that becomes too dependent on snowclones: we lose the salience of the meaning we are trying to convey and flimsy arguments are falsely accepted on the basis of “sounding good”.

While we can’t escape the confines of language we can realize that we all contribute to its constant reconstruction. Snowclones are not inherently bad -if used correctly- but they don’t make you wittier either, perhaps just a little less creative and maybe a little lazy.

Virally infective in a culture of rapid reproduction, it is clear snowclones are only becoming more popular. If we want our culture to make any sense at all to the anthropologists of the future we’d be wise to treat snowclones as an enhancement, not replacement, to synthesizing unique ideas.

It’s not the size of the snowclone. It’s how you use it.


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