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What does snowclone mean?

A snowclone is a customizable formulaic phrase that consists of a framework that can be adapted for different situations by changing some of the words. It’s typically expressed in terms of the invariable part of the phrase with blanks represented by X, Y, and Z, for example, X is the new Y.

image of snowclone

Where does snowclone come from?

Unusually, the origins of snowclone are very precisely recorded thanks to its recent origin and deliberate creation. It was coined as a neologism on Thursday, January 15, 2004, at 10:56:57pm on the popular linguistics blog Language Log. Glen Whitman proposed it in response to a request from Geoffrey K. Pullum. It was specifically coined to address journalistic uses of these phrases. The inspiration was the oft-quoted but incorrect piece of trivia that Eskimos have a large number of words for snow. Phrases that went, roughly, “if Eskimos have N words for snow, then surely X have Y words for Z” were therefore clones of the original snow quote.

A few things to note…

Although snowclone was created to describe a phenomenon of news writing, snowclones themselves have found a new home in memes with the rise of internet humor. All your X are belong to us is an example of a snowclone that originated as an internet meme rather than a journalistic construct. The meme, which sprung from the poor English translations in the opening dialogue of a game called Zero Wing, went viral in 1998.

Other examples of snowclones include Xy McXFace. In 2016, the British government held a contest to let the public decide the name of a polar research ship worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The public flooded the votes with Boaty McBoatface, though ultimately this winning name was not given to the giant ship, but instead to a small underwater autonomous vehicle. Similar names, such as Parsey McParseface, Planey McPlaneface, and Firey McFireface followed.

Another snowclone example is this is your X on Y. It originated in a 1987 television public service announcement from Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which contained the phrase this is your brain on drugs. Formulations have included this is your brain on poetry and this is your premise on drugs.

For example…

“One of the most popular snowclones right now is I'm in ur X, Y-ing ur Z .”

Paul McFedries, “Snowclone Is The New Cliché,” IEEE Spectrum (February 1, 2008)

“Impress your followers with these snowclones! Sound like a member of intelligentsia! • my X will be Y or it will be bullshit
• the X in the age of its technical Y
• on a certain tendency in $(adjective) Y
• the X as Y”

the-grey-tribe Tumblr (May 6, 2016)

“#AWSSummit brought me a new #snowclone: 'speed is the new normal.' I must confess this is a very appealing cliché.”

Michael Wolfrath @michaelwolfrath Twitter (15 April 2016)

This is not a formal definition of snowclone like most terms we define on, but is rather an informal word summary that touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of snowclone that will help you expand your word mastery.