Everything you ever wanted to know about snowclones, but were afraid to ask.

Several years ago now, I wrote a conference talk entitled – rather wittily, I felt – What have corpora ever done for us? In retrospect, I now realise it’s quite probable that the fact its title and much of its rhetorical framework were borrowed from a famous Monty Python sketch was lost on many who saw it at the time. In essence, the talk was a slightly grudging admission of the many benefits corpora linguistics has bestowed upon the profession – embedded within a plea for corpora truth to not become the be-all and end-all as this would cause classroom practitioners all manner of problems.

The reason I mention all of this is because just this week I learned that these artfully repurposed examples of phrases that have passed into common usage actually have a name – snowclones. I’ve long been aware of the way in which whole phrases pass from the realms of pop culture, the media and advertising into widespread use – and also of the ways in which they’re frequently tweaked and adapted to suit new contexts.

Take the terrifying line I love the smell of napalm in the morning, uttered by Colonel Kilgore to a clutch of terrifed young soliders in Francis Ford Coppola’s harrowing 1979 Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. As can be seen here, it proved to be such a flexible phrase that it was soon adapted and put to other – often knowing, comic – uses in a whole host of subsequent TV shows and movies. A quick search of the Web will reveal it’s also used in all manner of creative and entertaining ways in everyday speech and informal writing. Here are just five of many thousands of examples:

I love the smell of a good Powerpoint presentation in the morning.

I love the smell of newsprint in the morning.

Oh, I just love the smell of death threats in the morning.

I love the smell of desperation in the morning.

I’m in Kathmandu and I have to say, I LOVE the smell of Nepal in the morning.

Perhaps predictably, David Crystal was talking about these kinds of creative exploitations of norms twenty years ago, calling them catch structures. He gave the example of a sentence from Douglas Adams’ comic sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before” – a playful reworking of the controversial construction originally used in Star Trek – “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.

It wasn’t until 2004 that the Economics professor Glen Whitman coined the term snowclones, and it seems to have quickly passed into broader use. Presumably the term dervies from the fact that no two snowflakes are exactly alike, despite the fact they ostensibly seem remarkably similar.

SnowflakesOnWindshield

So what’s all this have to do with language teaching, I hear you ask? Well, on one level, it’s simply something fun and interesting to be aware of. It’s often surprised me when I’ve seen students from very different backgrounds and cultures playing with such phrases in class and enjoying the shared experience the sentences afford them. One recent example: I was teaching an Upper-Intermediate group and we were doing a revision exercise. One Spanish student started moaning and saying how hard it was, before another student moaned “It’s impossible!” Quick as a flash, a young Algerian guy in the class quipped that “Impossible is nothing!” – to much laughter – only for the original complainer to bring the house down with his reponse: “No, Nidal! Impossible is EVERYTHING!” None of this would’ve been possible without the Adidas advertising campaign that brought the phrase into global consciousness.

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On another level, of course, the fact that these phrases can be learned and adapted so easily would seem to support the notion that fully grammaticalised sentences can be acquired as items of lexis – as evidenced by the fact that absolute beginner students learn and successfully use the question What’s your name? without first slogging through endless permutations of the verb to be, a range of possessive pronouns and so on. Students are quite able to learn wholes, wholes that come complete with their own internal grammar, and to then break them down and reconstruct them. If the basic template of Place X is the Place Y of Place Z (as in Samarkand is the Paris of the East) is so flexible that whole websites have been set up to record its various permutations, then there’s no reason why a chunk like How long have you been doing that? cannot be taught and learned and used as a whole at Elementary level, and then broadened out to other versions later on –

How long have you been working there?

How long have you been living here?

How long have you been studying Greek?

at a later date.

Finally, it may be that there’s a (small) place for playful exploration of common snowclones at higher levels. The whole reason I came across them in the first place was because I was writing a text on the science behind trends for what will be Outcomes Advanced second editition – and decided to research common examples of the phrase Have we reached peak X? / We’re reaching peak X.

As for what we do with them in the book, well, you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?




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