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May I Compare Thee to a Snowclone?

A look at the perennial blizzard of Mad Lib-like clichés\rRecently, on my blog Wordlustitude, I recalled an old roommate with extreme eating habits: "I lived with a meatorexic once," I wrote with a shudder. "He used to eat slices of salami like they were potato chips. My name is Mark Peters, and I approved..\n

A look at the perennial blizzard of Mad Lib-like clichés

Recently, on my blog Wordlustitude, I recalled an old roommate with extreme eating habits: "I lived with a meatorexic once," I wrote with a shudder. "He used to eat slices of salami like they were potato chips. My name is Mark Peters, and I approved this disturbing college memory."I don't know if that last sentence made my readers groan, chuckle, or rethink their own diets, but I'm not alone in screwing around with this approving template. People everywhere are putting their good names behind articles, blogs, captions, emails, paragraphs, posts, sentences, status updates, and, of course, messages. It's a handy way to impersonate Presidential candidates ("I'm John McCain and I approved this recession"), show off your ninja-happy persona ("I'm Dan Johnson and I approved this merciless strike from the shadows"), or share a sentiment we can all get behind ("I'm Sarah Gates and I approved this ice cream!")Recessions, ninjas, and ice cream aside, the "My name is X and I approved this Y"-construct is a snowclone-one of those fill-in-the-blank, mega-repeated expressions that linguists, especially those on Language Log, have been collecting since 2003. (There's even a database full of them.)The word snowclone has its origin in the formula, "If Eskimos have N words for snow, then X have Y words for Z." That idea--which is based on total crapola, not actual research--appeared in bazillions of news stories over the years, raising the collective blood pressure of linguists to frightening levels. In 2004, the ever-present snow-words myth was cited as a perfect example of the maddening, Mad-Libs-like memes that the Language Loggers were collecting, which included gems like "To X or not to X?" Economist Glen Whitman cleverly put these overlapping examples together by coining the name snowclone for such adaptable idioms. It quickly caught on.Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, pithily defines snowclones as "some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists." But there's more going on than mindless repetition. A snowclone can be a secret handshake of sorts: take the many variations of the Obi-wan-ism "These aren't the droids you're looking for." Versions seen in blog posts ("These are not the WMDs you're looking for") and on t-shirts ("These aren't the breasts you're looking for") mark Star Wars fandom as plainly as a life-size Yoda doll.Snowclones come from every conceivable source. Apocalypse Now, Alien, and Jerry Maguire gave us "I love the smell of X in the morning," "In space, no one can hear you X," and "You had me at X," respectively, while Letterman, Star Trek, and Seinfeld added "stupid X tricks," "Set phasers on X," and "X about nothing." Shakespeare inadvertently offered up "Much ado about X" and "My kingdom for a X" as future snowclones, but lowbrow sources-like the Oldsmobile commercial that spawned "Not your father's X"-are just as prolific. Even an illness can become a snowclone, as sufferers of post-traumatic duds-doffing disorder and post-traumatic sea monkey syndrome will attest.The most popular snowclone is probably "X is the new Y", which breeds new variations at a rate that puts rabbits to shame. The blogosphere is especially rife with this snowclone, with blogs titled Pink is the New Blog, Red is the New Green, Old is the New New, and Pie is the New Toast. In fact, in just one day (Nov 17, 2008), it coughed up the following examples, among many others:Hope is the new change60 is the new 40Barack is the new DenzelBigfoot is the new blackMark Cuban is the new Martha StewartNatural vanilla is the new orangePomegranate is the new pinkTwitter is the new BlackberryMike Huckabee is the new Ryan SeacrestTransparency is the new accountabilityAmish is the new coolUnprotected sex is the new marriageZeus knows I strive to be a generous, bemused welcomer of all language developments. However, if I had the Greek god's power, I would punish use of that snowclone with the immediate dropping of a flower pot from a high building. Enough!Some snowclones are as fun as clone-clones, though they're harder to mobilize into a terrifying army. I enjoy "Moment of X Zen," which was born in 1996 when the "Moment of Zen" feature debuted on The Daily Show. Though a long way from actual Buddhism, folks who write about moments of "pumpkin Zen," "orangutan janitor Zen," or "hideous couch Zen" are at least pausing to notice and savor what's in front of their eyes. Most days I'm lucky enough to enjoy several moments of "whacko-rat-terrier Zen" and "extra large Dunkin' Donuts coffee Zen," and I'm all the better for it.What snowclones do you-oh blog-inhalers-use, like, love, or loathe?(My name is Batman, and I approved this shameless plea for comments.)(Photo from Flickr user kirinqueen)

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