The natural history of snowclones

The title of an abstract of mine for the 20th Stanford SemFest (Semantics Festival), to take place on March 15th and 16th (the Ides of March and National Panda Day, respectively). The SemFests feature reports (primarily 20-minute presentations, plus 10-minute question periods)

on recent work on any topic touching on meaning broadly construed, ranging from traditional topics in semantics and pragmatics to social meaning to natural language understanding and beyond

This posting is primarily about my snowclone paper, but there will also be some very personal reflections on the conference and its significance in my academic life.

The abstract:


The first snowclone discussions on Language Log:

GP, 10/27/03, in ” Phrases for lazy writers in kit form”

GP, 1/16/04, in “Snowclones: lexicographic dating to the second”

The references in the final paragraph are to two recent postings of mine:

on 7/21/18, “Swiss America”

on 12/27/18, “The family of Word Inclusion snowclones”

(both about phenomena with a long history on Language Log and my blog).

In between these come a huge number of postings — which I’ve now inventoried in a Page on this blog. Snowclonelet composites (aka snowclonelets) are separately inventoried  here. And the big inventory cites relevant entries on Erin Stevenson O’Connor’s Snowclone Database site.

(#2) The scdb logo

Background from the Wikipedia page:

A snowclone is a cliché and phrasal template that can be used and recognized in multiple variants. The term was coined as a neologism in 2004, derived from journalistic clichés that referred to the number of Eskimo words for snow.

The linguistic phenomenon of “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 variants” was originally described by linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum in 2003. Pullum later described snowclones as “some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists”.

In an October 2003 post on Language Log, a collaborative blog by several linguistics professors, Pullum solicited ideas for what the then-unnamed phenomenon should be called. In response to the request, the word “snowclone” was coined by economics professor Glen Whitman on January 15, 2004, and Pullum endorsed it as a term of art the next day. The term was derived by Whitman from journalistic clichés referring to the number of Eskimo words for snow and incorporates a pun on the snow cone (a paper cone of shaved ice flavored with syrup) [in the element clone‘an organism or cell, or group of organisms or cells, produced asexually from one ancestor or stock, to which they are genetically identical; a person or thing regarded as identical to another’ (NOAD)].

The term “snowclone” has since been adopted by other linguists, journalists, and authors.

Snowclones are related to both memes and clichés, according to the Los Angeles Times‘s David Sarno: “Snowclones are memechés, if you will: meme-ified clichés with the operative words removed, leaving spaces for you or the masses to Mad Lib their own versions.”

“Leaving spaces” might work in a fluffy piece in the LA Times, but the work of stipulating the semantics, pragmatics, and social contexts of snowclones is a tough slog — in fact, the same as this task for any syntactic construction.

Personal SemFest notes. This section is very personal and kind of sad, so you might want to skip it. I begin with an account of my involvement with the conference, year by year.

2000: no SemFest paper. But two other papers at Stanford. The handout for my 2000 BLS talk (in the version presented later at Stanford) on “Describing syncretism: Rules of referral after fifteen years”. The handout for a Stanford Syntax Workshop in May 2000, “A-verb-in’ we will go”, on the syntax of a-prefixing of verbs in various Southern varieties of English.

2001: The handout for my 2001 SemFest talk on “Counting Chad”, on the count/mass distinction in English, with special reference to chad, e-mail/email, and ice plant.

2002: The handout for my 2002 SemFest talk on “The said and the unsaid”, about material in the Atherton (CA) police blotter. Also at Stanford that year: The handout for my 2002 NWAV talk at Stanford on “Seeds of variation and change”. The handout for a 2002 Stanford talk, “Just how interesting a construction is this? Explorations in the matching of internal and external syntax”.

2003: no paper: the SemFest came during the final months of my man Jacques’ dying. But later in the year, in other venues, including two at Stanford: The handout for my presentation at the 2003 Stanford IsisFest, on “double is” in English. The handout for a 2003 Stanford talk, “Some foundational issues for construction grammar: Mutual definition and cluster concepts”.

2004: The handout for my 2004 SemFest talk, “Isolated NPs”.

2005: The handout for my presentation “Ideal types: peacocks, chameleons, and centaurs” at the March 2005 SemFest (on categorization in general, and categorization of gay men in particular).

2006: no paper (I was at the Stanford Humanities Center in 2005-06, where I presented a paper. The handout for my November 2005 presentation on dangling modifiers at the Stanford Humanities Center.)

2007: two SemFest papers, to make up for no SemFest paper in 2006. The handout for my 2007 SemFest talk, “Extris, extris”, on “extra is” constructions in English. The handout for a 2007 SemFest talk by AMZ and Douglas Kenter, “Avoid vagueness? The case of sentence-initial linking however”

2008: The handout for a 2008 SemFest talk, What to blame it on: Diathesis alternations, usage advice, “confusion”, and pattern extension.

2009: The handout for my 2009 SemFest talk, “V + P~Ø” on transitive/intransitive alternations.

2010: The handout for my 2010 SemFest talk, “Brevity plus” on morphological conversions favoring semantic/pragmatic specificity and social specificity as well as brevity.

2011: The handout for my 2011 SemFest talk, “Categories and Labels: LGBPPTQQQEIOAAAF2/SGL …”, on labels in the domain of sexuality / sexual orientation, gender / sexual identity, and sexual practices, as used to construct an initialism for the entire domain.

2012: The handout (a posting to this blog) for my 2012 SemFest talk, “Parts of the body” (on categorization and labeling, again).

2013: The handout for my 2013 SemFest talk, “In a syntactic quandary”, about alternatives in expressing the possessive of certain coordinate NPs (1sg + 3sg: I and Kim, Kim and I).

2014: The handout (a posting to this blog) for my 2014 SemFest talk, “Metatext in the comics”, on the use of material outside the drawings and texts in cartoons (titles, captions, mouseovers, etc.) to enrich the semantic/pragmatic content of these and to provide extra content. (reporting on joint work with Elizabeth Closs Traugott)

At that point I buckled under an array of medical conditions and several years of depression. The 2014 SemFest paper was the last presentation I made before an audience (in a classroom or at a conference), so I’m more than a bit trepidatious about giving a talk next month; I’ve been away for five years. In addition, for a complex of reasons (mostly medical and financial) I haven’t been able to get to events at my Stanford department for 15 months; my academic life has been carried out on-line, from home.

Meanwhile, the SemFests have played an outsize role in my academic life, since it’s been 15+ years since I’ve been able to get an abstract accepted at the conferences I consider to be the natural outlets for reports on my work: Linguistic Society of America, American Dialect Society, New Ways of Analyzing Variation. Plenty of rejections, except from the SemFests; either I began to wither intellectually starting about 20 years ago, or my work became just too quirky and unfashionable for most people then. Or, of course, both. (The issue is now largely moot, since, for medical and financial reasons, the Stanford SemFests are pretty much the only conferences I’m able to get to these days.)


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