Snowclones in the time of pandemic

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, emerges from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. Scanning electron microscope image via NIAID

Admit it: at some time in the past few months, you either wrote or thought of writing some version of “(X) in the time of COVID-19.”

You’d be in good company. Forbes used it in headlines for “Grieving In The Time Of Covid-19,” “Compassion in the Time of COVID-19,” “Biotechnology In the Time of COVID-19,”Traveling by Air…,” “Healthcare…,” “Privacy…” We could go on, but why pile on Forbes?

The Washington Post had headlines for “Courtesy questions in the time of covid-19,” “Love and medicine…,” “Life…,” and, just to be sure the audience got the reference, “Love in the time of coronavirus.” 

NPR’s headlines included “Cooking…,” “Clubbing…,” “Nicaragua…,” and, just to be sure the audience got the reference, “Love In The Time of COVID-19.”

Numerous other outlets used it in body copy, sometimes numerous times. (By the way, why hasn’t journalism yet agreed on how to render Covid/COVID/covid?)

How clever, to give a twist to the title of the novel Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Except that it’s not clever if so many other people think of it. 

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“(X) in the Time of COVID-19” has quickly become a cliché, but not just any cliché. This type of cliché is a “multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence,” the lexicographer Geoffrey Pulliam wrote in 2003. You create it by taking a well-known phrase, like “in space, no one can hear you scream,” and substituting one or more words that leave the original altered but recognizable: “in space, no one can hear you snore.

What’s needed, Pulliam wrote, is a name for “this kind of reusable customizable easily-recognized twisted variant of a familiar but non-literary quoted or misquoted saying. (I say ‘or misquoted’ because there is actually no original source for The Eskimos have N words for snow, people only think it once appeared in some reputable source.) ‘Cliché’ isn’t narrow enough — these things are certainly clichés, but a very special type of cliché. And ‘literary allusion’ won’t do: these things don’t by any means have to be literary.”

A few months later, apparently using Pulliam’s reference to “N words for snow,” Glenn Whitman, a California economics professor, gave this lexicographical construct a name: “snowclone.”

A “snowclone” is not an “eggcorn,” when a word or phrase modified by a soundalike word somehow still makes sense, like “beckon call” instead of “beck and call,” or the almost-normalized “hone in on” instead of the more accurate “home in on.”

 

The ‘snowclone’ is closer to an obvious, groaning pun than it is to the elegant wordplay many good writers and headline artists produce. Writers reaching for the latter often find the former.

 

A “snowclone” is also not a “mondegreen,” classically defined as a misheard lyric (“’Scuse me while I kiss this guy”); or a “spoonerism,” switching two sounds in a phrase (“former president Hoobert Heever”); or a “malapropism,” when a similar-sounding word is substituted but makes little sense (“the government needs to abolish the Electrical College”).

No, the “snowclone” is aimed directly at you, the journalist. As Pulliam wrote before the construct had a name, it “can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers.” After it got its name, Pulliam wrote that “snowclones” are “some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists.”

Ouch.

The “snowclone” is closer to an obvious, groaning pun (“new measles cases have been spotted in our area”) than it is to the elegant wordplay many good writers and headline artists produce. (One of our favorite headlines was on a New York Times article on people who collected and grew palm trees in Florida: “With Fronds Like These, Who Needs Anemones?”) Writers reaching for the latter often find the former.

Luckily for journalists, “snowclone” has moved beyond journalism. As dictionary.com notes, “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.”

Even so, the next time you find yourself reaching for “(X) is the new (Y)”; the overused “(X), (Y), and (Z), oh my”; or something that sounds familiar, take a second and search The Snowclones Database. If it’s there, step slowly away from the “snowclone.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.