Ryan Gabbard, one of the brains behind a swell group blog called The Audhumlan Conspiracy, passed along four links from Language Log contributor Geoff Pullum, a professor of linguistics at University of California-Santa Cruz.
Pullum has gone to considerable lengths to dispell the notion that Eskimos have an inordinately large number of words for snow, which aggravates him all the more when he sees journalists rolling this rhetorical snowball. From the first link Gabbard sent me:
The truth about snow words in the Eskimo languages simply doesn’t matter. If it did, I would carefully explain that there seem to be only a handful of roots that really are snow roots in the languages of the Yup’iks and Inuits, maybe four or five, not very different from the number found in English (snow, sleet, slush, blizzard). But it doesn’t matter. All that matters to journalists is that they continue to have the snowbound simile in question at their disposal for constant use whenever a line or two needs to be filled up with linguistic babble.
From the second link:
… hundreds or even thousands of unimaginative writers are using If Eskimos have N words for snow… (pick any number you like for the N) … Well, I just discovered another one, quite by accident. Checking on the source of the original poster slogan for Alien, I was distracted by finding that the web has ten thousand or more instances of jokey variants on it. The original was In space, no one can hear you scream. I found people saying … that in space no one can hear you belch, bitch, blog, cream, DJ, dream, drink, explode, gag, groan, laugh, moo, opine, pop, sell, sing, smeg, snore, speak, squeak, suck, sweat, tap, whimper, yawn..
What’s needed is a convenient one-word named for this kind of reusable customizable easily-recognized twisted variant of a familiar but non-literary quoted or misquoted saying.
In link three, Pullum rips into a New York Times writer for badly mangling the “x names of snow” ditty.
Dennis, I want to make a suggestion to you about your use of hackneyed phrases in kit form to launch articles, and it’s this: get a life. Think up some novel stuff. Don’t be an indolent hack, use your left brain. Don’t just make trips up the well-worn staircase to the attic full of dusty phrasal bric-a-brac that journalists keep returning to time after time after time.
Finally, in link four Pullum has a name for this process of mangling cliches:
Glen Whitman, who discussed this topic on Agoraphilia, taking his cue from the first example, proposes calling these non-sexually reproduced journalistic textual templates by an appealingly simple name: we can call them snowclones.Hearing no other nominations, I now hereby propose that they be so dubbed. The clerk shall enter the new definition into the records.
I second the motion.