Day 323: Snowclones Are The New Black

originally published November 18, 2012

With a name that sounds either like a horrific northern ocean storm or a delicious frozen treat, a snowclone is actually a snippet of language that we make use of all the time. Perhaps too often.

As a writer, I try to be mindful of avoiding clichés. It’s almost impossible not to let one slip out like a fart sometimes; they are so tightly woven into our collective colloquia they tend to fit in with the rest of the language. A snowclone is a customized cliché. If there’s a catchphrase you can’t help but spew like seltzery spit bubbles into every one of your conversations, this allows you to tweak it a little, paint some flames on the side and make it your own.

The Los Angeles Times’ David Sarno defines snowclones as ‘memechés’, a marriage of memes and clichés. Glen Whitman is the guy who coined the idea originally, basing it on the well-worn trope of: “If the Eskimos have # words for snow, then X surely has Y words for Z.” People throw in whatever words and numbers fit their present circumstance, and because their audience is familiar with the original concept behind the saying, the tweaked phrasing works.

It doesn’t matter if the message behind the snowclone is accurate or not. In the example above, the Eskimo-Aleut languages actually have about the same number of words for snow that we do, albeit with a greater variety of linguistic ways to modify those words. We have plenty of alternatives in English, like slush, powder, precipitation, sleet, blizzard, cornice, and snirt – a portmanteau of ‘snow’ and ‘dirt’ that applies to almost every flake one can see in Edmonton by February.

Here are a few other snowclones we just can’t seem to escape:

We have plenty of Mc-words, based on the notion that McDonald’s is globalized, commercialized and lacking any superlative quality. Having a McJob means you’re a lowly cog in a massive corporate machine. Living in a McMansion means your house – while above-average in size and price – is most likely a clone of every other house in the neighborhood, which is a clone of numerous other neighborhoods around the country. A McChurch focuses on entertainment and consumerism to lure in the masses, with their religious messages sprinkled in as an afterthought. Great places to go if you collect plastic Jesuses.

Dr. Leonard McCoy from Star Trek introduced this snowclone through his use of it eleven times in the original run of the series. Actor DeForest Kelley gave his implicit permission for the popular use of the term in a commercial for Trivial Pursuit when he quipped, “How should I know? I’m an actor, not a doctor.” That made me chuckle, and wonder when I’ve ever seen a commercial for Trivial Pursuit.

In 1993, the milk people (who may just be cows in really good costumes) came out with the first ‘Got Milk?’ commercial, directed by Michael Bay – there’s a weird piece of trivia for you. The ads were a huge success, and the catchphrase has been tweaked by countless purveyors of other things: Got Ham? Got Credit? Got Porn? Got Jesus?

Is this a sign of a slogan’s success? Or does it simply dilute the message?

What would Jesus do? Perhaps the better question would be, What would Jesus buy? What would Johnny Cash do? What would Tintin do? Making a snowclone out of this message, which has its origins in the Wesleyan concept of Christian perfection in the 18th century, has been an easy target. What would Reagan do? – that has been a mantra among some conservatives since the neo-con revolution took power over a decade ago. What would Brian Boitano Do? – this was a song from the South Park feature film, Bigger, Longer & Uncut. What Would Tyler Durden Do? – that’s a celebrity gossip blog that for some reason adopted the name of Brad Pitt’s character in the movie Fight Club.

It’s an easy question, really. What would Jesus do? He was Jewish. He’d go to synagogue and study the Torah. Get on board, Christian people.

Beginning most likely in the 1950’s, the notion of “the new black” peppered the fashion world like… well, I guess like pepper. For once I won’t over-reach and mix my metaphors. Gianfranco Ferré gets credit for a 1983 quote in the Los Angeles Times that literally pronounces, in the interest of promoting somber and muted colors in the spring line, that grey was the new black.

Snowclones of this have sprung up all over our cultural garden like an infectious weed. Radiohead proclaims that “Down Is The New Up”; Galinda, the Good Witch, announces that black is this year’s pink in the musical Wicked; Carson Kressley, wisely observing that the trend of gay culture could be compared to America’s fascination with Blaxploitation in the 1970s, observed that “gay is the new black.”

Another entry from Star Trek – “Where no man has gone before,” the phrase that launched the theme song on the show each week has made its way into snowclone infamy, thanks to Futurama, DuckTales, and Douglas Adams, who wryly mocked the split infinitive of “to boldly go.”

This phrase has been trodding around the snowclone estate for some time now: Apple used it in 1992 to announce their new 7.0 operating system was the one which would “boldly go where everyone else has been”, meaning it would run on an Intel chip. It even dates back to Space Quest, the 1987 computer game that sent its hero “to boldly go where no man has swept the floor.” I miss 80’s computer-game humor.

This is the problem with snowclones. In 1987, that phrase seemed clever and witty, at least to 12-year-old me. But what is the lifespan on a snowclone? Sure, new phrases are finding their way into our collective lexicon each year, and each year people will snowclone the shit out of them, but eventually they should be retired. I honestly think I’d be turned off buying a toaster that promised to “boldly toast what no man has toasted before.”

Some of these things don’t even make sense to me. Have Gun – Will Travel was a popular western TV show from 1957 through 1963, and apparently it was snowcloned quite often, with something clever and witty replacing the word ‘gun’. “Shopping while black” refers to the discrimination black shoppers endure in a retail environment. Understandable… except that it’s a play on “Driving while intoxicated”. That’s an odd leap to make. “Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten” – I don’t understand why this is on the list of snowclones, and I’m suddenly very concerned for our world’s kitten population.

Keep an eye out for these snowclones and you’ll see they pop up everywhere. Watch for your own use, and be sure you’re not helping to promote a tired cliché or even worse, mis-use one. If nothing else, you’ve learned that these words exist, and they have a name. Me, I’m off to kill a kitten.

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