The snowclone silly season opens

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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.

It was in October 2003 that I first remarked on Language Log that "we need a name for . . . a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers" (see "Phrases for lazy writers in kit form", following up on an earlier post about the phenomenon of bleached conditionals).

The classic original example that I discussed was essentially the one Nevin uses above: If Eskimos have N words for snow, then . . .. He has used a may rather than if, and refers to the Inuit of Greenland rather than speakers of Eskimoan languages more generally, but basically he is using the template that gave rise to the technical term snowclone (coined by Glen Whitman at 3 seconds before 10:57 p.m. on Thursday, January 15, 2004, in Northridge, California, as noted here).

It was Mark Liberman who first pointed out to me that if Eskimos have N words for snow . . . (your choice of N, your choice of following main clause) was being used by hundreds or even thousands of writers on the web. "It has become a journalistic cliché phrase," I said, "with an attention-grabbing hook and totally free parameters for you to set as you wish."

Where are we, eight years later (and a quarter century after Laura Martin first highlighted the silliness of the Eskimo snow vocabulary legend), with the work of tearing journalists away from the lazy habit of regurgitating this stupid phrase template? Nowhere, despite my regularly pouring as much derision on the habit as I can muster.

Nevin stretches the notion of "words for snow" beyond any reasonable limit (if you can defocus your mind's eye enough to see forced to spend another night as a Word For Snow, as he implies in the passage above, then put the bottle away in the liquor cabinet now, and lock it). But who cares? No one cares. He's just reaching for the standard snowclone to start an empty little piece saying that winter is coming to Britain. Short of a suitable opening, he just joins the parade of lazy writers, riding their worn-looking floats through the streets, waving their limp snowclones to attract the attention of the crowd.

It really is pathetic. But brace yourself: it's only December 5, and there are a lot more references to the legendary lexicon of the nomads of the North still to come this winter. Contentless non-stories, not about snowfall but about all sorts of other things — in this case, journalistic writing about winter travel snarl-ups — will provide an opportunity to trot out the old snowclone, mostly without having a shred of evidence about Eskimoan languages to give it substance. (One article I saw recently, which actually alluded to the lexical myth itself as if it had something important to tell us about cognition and dying languages, did try to refer to some evidence; but as I argued elsewhere, the evidence was misunderstood.)

Don't worry, they seem to think, it's only about language, you don't need to fact-check; just make stuff up.

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