Archive for Snowclones

We have a winner

William Lashner, Fatal Flaw, 2009:

What are we looking at when we are looking at love? Eskimos have like six billion different words for snow because they understand snow. Don’t ever try to snow an Eskimo. But for six billion different permutations of emotional attachment we have just one word. Why? Because we don’t have a clue.

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Bad science reporting again: the Eskimos are back

You just can't keep a bad idea down. And you just can't lift the level of bad science journalism up. David Robson of New Scientist, in a piece published in that pop science rag a couple of weeks ago (issue of 22/29 December 2012, p. 72; behind a pay wall) and now also published in the Washington Post, reports on a book chapter by Igor Krupnik and Ludger Müller-Wille about anthropologist Franz Boas's travels in the early 20th century with a Canadian Inuit band whose language he learned. Robson says of Boas:

Mentioning his observations in the introduction to his 1911 book "Handbook of American Indian Languages," he ignited the claim that Eskimos have dozens, or even hundreds, of words for snow. Although the idea continues to capture public imagination, most linguists considered it an urban legend, born of sloppy scholarship and journalistic exaggeration. Some have even gone as far as to name it the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The latest evidence, however, suggests that Boas was right all along.

Not a single statement in this passage is correct.

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Snow words in the comics

Coincidentally, two syndicated comic strips running today riff off of the old "Eskimo words for snow" canard. In Darby Conley's "Get Fuzzy," Satchel the dog discovers that "cats are like the Eskimos of laziness":

And in Jef Mallett's "Frazz," one of the "really really false" statements on Mr. Burke's quiz is "The Inuit have 100 words for snow and one of them is 'humptydiddy'":

(Hat tip, Nancy Friedman and Ed Cormany.)

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"We are all the other now"

Writing recently for the online Ideas section of Time, Jeffrey Kluger took on the "We are all X (now)" trope, or as it's called in these parts, a snowclone. "This increasingly common trope has an easy, fill-in-the-blank quality to it that allows us to affect a bit of purloined heroism, put it on the credit card of someone else, and feel pretty darned good about ourselves in the bargain," he writes. Kluger quotes me on the history of the snowclone (which I looked into for a 2006 LL post), and its ready adaptability to various expressions of empathy and solidarity. Now, in a thinkpiece about Obama's re-election, David Simon (creator of the HBO shows "The Wire" and "Treme") takes the snowclone to its logical conclusion: "We are all the other now."

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Get Fuzzy '05

[Background: in inventorying postings with linguistically interesting cartoons, for a Language of Comics project at Stanford (directed by Elizabeth Traugott and me), the project intern has been unearthing postings from Language Log Classic whose image links no longer work. Here's one of Mark Liberman's from 2005 -- "Illustrations" of 8/2/05, with two Get Fuzzy strips. I'm reproducing the posting here, with fresh, working links.

Back in 2005, we didn't have comments open on postings. But I've opened them now. Just remember: This posting is by Mark, not me. I'm just a typist.]

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"The last acceptable form of <SomeImmoralAttitude>"

Reader T.B. writes:

I don't think I've noticed discussion of this snowclone: "X is the last acceptable form of prejudice/discrimination".  I've come across it in reference to obesity…now linguistic bigotry and gingerism.

The fact that it's become a snowclone almost makes it an empty claim.  You can be sure that something else will soon pop up to replace X as the last acceptable form of prejudice…

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The All Are Belong snowclone

On my blog, here, a survey of the descendants of All your base are belong to us, with a section on the 2004-06 heyday of the snowclone on Language Log.

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It's baaack . . . and upside-down!

There's a new sighting of the  well-worn "There's no word for accountability in X" snowclone, which we first noticed back in 2006 ("Solving the World's Problems with Linguistics"), and picked up again just about a year ago ("Annals of 'No word for X'"). The usual function of this rhetorical trope, as documented in those posts, is to explain why bankers/business-executives/bureaucrats from a wide range of non-Anglophone counties, from Angola to Iceland, are so feckless — they simply can't understand the concept of accountability, poor things, since their language lacks the word.  The cultural assumptions are probably no more true than the linguistic ones,  of course — my impression is that in actual fact, Anglophone bankers etc. can give the rest of the world a substantial fecklessness handicap and still win going away. I mean, did Silvio Berlusconi ever misplace 1.2 billion dollars of someone else's money, as a certain American ex-Senator recently did? But I digress.

Anyhow, the latest example turns the trope on its head, and uses it to explain why Finnish schools are so well managed.

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Octoporn

Don't get me wrong: I am entirely positive about octopus porn. Graphically depicted sex with our multiply-tentacled cephalopod friends is cool as far as I'm concerned.

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Eskimos again, this time seeing the invisible

"As Eskimos do with snow," wrote Emma Brockes yesterday in a New York Times review of Alan Hollinghurst's new novel (and the hairs rose on the back of my neck as I saw those words), "the English see gradations of social inadequacy invisible to the rest of the world; Mr. Hollinghurst separates them with a very sharp knife."

If Emma Brockes were one of the sharper knives in the journalistic cutlery drawer she might have avoided becoming the 4,285th writer since the 21st century began who has used in print some variant of the original snowclone. (I didn't count to get that figure of 4,285, I just chose a number at random. Why the hell not? People make up the number of words for snow found in Eskimoan languages that they know absolutely nothing about. I might as well just make stuff up like everybody else.)

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The snowclone silly season opens

Winter has definitely come to Scotland. It is cold, and when light first returns to the sky around 9 a.m. I can see snow on the cars outside my apartment that have driven in from out of town. The winter silly season in the UK newspapers has begun. Here is Charles Nevin in a putatively quite serious newspaper, The Independent:

Minor British Institutions: The white hell

The most unexpected regular event in Britain is on its way, if it hasn't already arrived.

The Inuit may have more than a few words for snow, but so do we: transport chaos, hundreds stranded in sub-zero misery, grounds to a halt, disrupted flights, mass cancellations, forced to spend another night, enjoying another day off school, clear or don't clear the pavement outside your house if you don't want to be sued, it doesn't happen in Norway.

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"Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo"

Last month, in the post "'Words for snow' watch," I reported that Kate Bush's new album (out Nov. 21) is called 50 Words for Snow. I wrote, "It's unclear at this point exactly how Eskimos will figure into Bush's songwriting, but it's safe to say they'll be in there somewhere." Today, thanks to NPR's stream of the album, I've listened to the ethereal title track, and the Eskimos are indeed in there, but perhaps not in the way you'd expect.

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"Words for snow" watch

It's been a while since we've rounded up public appearances of the old "Eskimo words for snow" myth. Here are a few recent examples that have been sent in to Language Log Plaza.

Item #1: The singer-songwriter Kate Bush will be releasing a new album on Nov. 21 with the title (sigh) 50 Words for Snow. That's also the name of a song on the album, and some other tracks are similarly snow-themed ("Snowflake," "Snowed in at Wheeler Street"). It's unclear at this point exactly how Eskimos will figure into Bush's songwriting, but it's safe to say they'll be in there somewhere. It's perhaps also a telling sign that the album features a guest appearance from Stephen Fry, he of "Fry's Planet Word."

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Who Put the X in AXB: Snowclone Follies of 1912

Inspired by Mark Liberman's post, "Putting the X in AXB," I spent some time trying to find the origin for this venerable snowclone. A quick check of newspaper databases uncovered "putting the fun in fundamentals" from November 1912, and it turns out that the fall of 1912 was when the snowclone snowballed. It's a nice example of how, even a century ago, lingua-memes could "go viral" (and go stale).

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Putting the X in AXB

Josh Fruhlinger was morpho-syntactically unhappy about Shoe for 9/21/2011 ("Josh puts the 'long' in 'long-winded'", The Comics Curmudgeon 9/21/2011):


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