Meta-snowclones for gastro-geeks

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The granddaddy of all snowclones has often been expressed here at Language Log Plaza as a formula with variables:

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.

So it's pleasing to see this iteration of the ur-snowclone, from Jeff Potter's new book, Cooking for Geeks (p. 258):

If Eskimos have N words for describing snow, the French and
Italians have
N+1 words for describing dishes involving egg yolks.

Here's the relevant snippet:

We shouldn't be too surprised that Potter is getting all meta with the snowclone, given that this is the type of cookbook that includes a guide to the metric system from Randall Munroe of xkcd, not to mention (immediately preceding the section on egg yolks) an "Optimal Cake-Cutting Algorithm for N People." This is clearly our kind of geekery.

(Hat tip, Jens Fiederer.)


  1. bulbul said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    There was an old movie (possibly starring young Demi Moore) where one of the characters (possibly a female) first mentioned an African tribe having X words for Y (possibly a cow or some other item crucial to the tribe's economy) only to go meta and ask another character (possibly a male) something along the lines of "Now think of how many words there are in English for the vagina and what it says about our culture."
    I'm off to IMDB, be back later with a clip.

  2. Don Sample said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    His cake cutting algoritm is really only optimal when you have a surplus of cake. If you've got 10 people, and each of them thinks that they want an eighth of the cake, it's not going to work out very well.

    (And the metric conversion chart has 3L being the same size as a two liter bottle, WTF?)

  3. Bradley M said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    I still love the phrase, "Spit goes 'clink'."

  4. bulbul said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    The movie is No Small Affair and the clip is here.
    The stuff I remember, seriously …

  5. Jeff Potter said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    Wow, I got mentioned in Language Log! (I occasionally lurk around here.) Thanks!

    Don, I'll look at the 2L / 3L issue. Sounds like a typo. Unless you're talking about the xkcd comic, in which case it's a joke. Re: cake cutting algo, if 10 people each want an 1/8th slice, then each user should realize there isn't enough and someone should call "cut" at 1/10th as soon as that point is reached. Not doing so risks getting a less-than-tenth slice.


  6. Nick said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    Sorry Jeff, but I don't think it's funny. Even if it's tongue-in-cheek, it's promoting the continuation of some serious linguistic misconceptions. Additionally, the old Eskimo hoax is a symptom of our society's continuing colonialist discourse and complete disregard for scientific accuracy.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    I thought it was funny.

  8. Faldone said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

    I think that calling the Eskimo thing a hoax is pushing the definition of hoax a little too far. To me a hoax needs an element of intent to deceive, which I don't believe the Eskimo words for snow thing has. It started with a simple observation by Franz Boas that the Eskimos had four words for snow. I think it was Sapir, or maybe Whorf, who dropped that number to two and added that neither of them covered all of what we know as snow. That element seems to have been forgotten and the original number just started to grow all by itself. I don't think anyone ever sat down and said, "Let's see how big a number we can get and have those idiots believe it."

  9. Charles said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    On the guide to the metric system, the author wrote: "This leaves me wondering: is a pint of Guinness actually larger in Ireland?" Since an Imperial pint is 20oz but a US pint is a disappointingly small 16oz, the answer is 'yes'. One of the worst things about moving to America was trying to get used to the tiny pints. I still haven't.

  10. Chaon said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

    So these two Colonialists walk into a bar. One orders a Mai-Tai, and the other orders a Singapore Sling. They then engage in a complete disregard for scientific accuracy.

  11. bulbul said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 4:15 am

    I don't think anyone ever sat down and said, "Let's see how big a number
    we can get and have those idiots believe it."

    Ever heard of 'cock-up before conspiracy'?

    To me a hoax needs an element of intent to deceive
    Not necessarily. Reckless disregard for the truth is enough.

  12. Josh said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 4:48 am

    I notice the comic's been slightly sanitized in its published version, but I suppose that's understandable.

  13. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    Reckless disregard is negligence. Hoax is intentional deceit (whereas its mindless propagation may be negligence).

    Further, N words for M is a hoax hardly worthy of any disapprobation stronger than laughter.

  14. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    Did you know that the Snacirema have over 10 words for "hoax"?

  15. Nick said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Don't look at me, Geoffrey Pullum is the one who called it a hoax first. Maybe it would be more appropriate to call it a lie, fabrication, or myth. Either way, it's stupid, and intellectually problematic.

  16. nathan said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    Sorry, but I can't resist this.

    If Eskimos have N words for describing snow, Oulipians have N+7 words for describing writing constraints.

  17. Dan T. said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    Ever heard of 'cock-up before conspiracy'?

    I've heard of Cock-up-over-conspiracy, which is the username of somebody who posts to Wikipedia Review.

  18. Jens Fiederer said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    Potter CLEARLY said "If Eskimos have…" referencing the myth, rather than making any assertions about its truth, so he must be absolved of any charge of "promoting the continuation of some serious linguistic misconceptions". In fact, using the variable N for the number pretty well contradicts the misconception that there is some specific number that would serve.

    I don't think any reader will seriously believe that there is the implied direct relationship between snow words and yolk words, either – so he should also be absolved of any charge of spreading a new misconception about French.

    Very enjoyable book, by the way. It corrected MY misconception that my cooking removed the alcohol from my wine sauces. Not that my kids ever got noticeably drunk, but still – I wish I had known that earlier!

  19. Rodrigo said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    Just for the record: I have actually tried that algorithm on people, in both geek, muggle and mixed groups (I learned about in a conference at my school, yay for my school!) and must (sadly) report that it doesn't actually work. Even though you can actually prove that it should. Apparently the erroneous assumption is that the people present will *understand* what they are required to do. They never get around to actually saying 'stop', and instead just look at you with a blank stare in their faces :-(

  20. bulbul said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    I have actually tried that algorithm on people, in both geek, muggle
    I have often tried to find a good equivalent for 'non-geek', but it has never occurred to me to use 'muggle'. Thank you, thank you so much. I'll be spreading the word.

  21. Sam said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    the use of "muggle" with the meaning "non-geek" occurred in the first episode of the new season of "The Big Bang Theory."

  22. bulbul said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:49 am


    yeah, I happened to see it just a few minutes ago. Now let's wait and see if it holds. If it does, we'll have the data for the inevitable OED update at the ready.

  23. Aaron Davies said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    @sam, bulbul: "mundane" is common in SF fandom as a term for non-fans

  24. hbuutr said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

    bulbul: "mundane" is common in SF fandom as a term for non-fans

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