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.
I believe that this is the largest estimate of the Eskimo snow vocabulary ever published.
And it's embedded in a rhetorical move that turns the usual snowclone pattern inside out. The classical trope is "Just as the Eskimos have N words for snow, so the members of group X have M words for Y, which is thereby identified as a characteristic concern of group X". But Lashner adds another dimension: the Eskimos stereotypically have six billion words for snow because snow is stereotypically important to them and they stereotypically understand its billions of subtle variations. We allegedly have only one word for love, because even though it's critically important to us, and has billions of subtle variations, we don't understand it at all.
Lashner's lexico-statistical accuracy is weak, since at the end of any plausible tally, English will have more morphemes for "permutations of emotional attachment" than Yupik has for types of frozen precipitation. (A thesaurus gives more than 50 "synonyms" for love, and it's easy to think of dozens of terms left out of the list, even without going to lexicalized phrases.)
But these "words for X" tropes are never actually about word or morpheme counts. So give Lashner a round of applause for a clever and effective summary of his book's focus.
A few of our earlier posts on less clever versions of the words-for-snow template:
"Bleached conditionals", 10/21/2003
"Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit snow words: A clarification", 1/30/2004
"Can Geoff Pullum rest on his laurels?", 8/13/2004
"Etymology as argument", 6/18/2005
"Snowclone blindness", 11/19/2005
"112 words for misunderstanding meaning", 2/5/2006
"More rhetorical abuse of the Eskimo lexicon", 6/25/2006
"Fashionably many Icelandic words for snow", 6/25/2010
"Meta-snowclones for gastro-geeks", 9/23/2010
"Tracking 'words for X' fluctuations", 3/22/2011
"'Words for snow' watch", 10/14/2011
"Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo", 11/14/2011
"The snowclone silly season opens", 12/5/2011
"Eskimos again, this time seeing the invisible", 12/12/2011
"Snow words in the comics", 1/13/2013
"Bad science reporting again: the Eskimos are back", 1/15/2013
"The mystery of the missing misconception", 1/30/2013