Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Phrases for Lazy Writers in Kit Form Are the New Clichés

Geoff Pullum of Language Log says we need a word to denote “phrases for lazy writers in kit form.” To be more specific, “the thing we need a name for is 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 jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers.” As the paradigmatic example, Pullum offers the frequent use of the old saw about Eskimos having some really large number of words for snow (which turns out to be false) in sentences like, “If Eskimos have N words for snow, then Santa Cruzans must have even more for surf.”

I haven’t come up with a name yet, but I do have another example: “X is the new Y.” I suspect this turn of phrase first appeared in the fashion world, in statements like “Grey is the new black.” Now it’s being used for just about anything, fashion-oriented or not. I have to admit getting a chuckle when I heard that butt crack is the new cleavage. But a quick Google search for “is the new” reveals a writing formula out of control. Among other things, I learned that:
Slick is the new scruffy. (style)
Scar tissue is the new black. (style)
Old is the new young. (style)
Glam is the new metal. (music)
Rock’n’roll is the new hip hop. (music, duh)
Knitting is the new rock’n’roll. (pastimes)
Gambling is the new rock’n’roll. (pastimes)
Blood is the new black. (horror movies)
To text is the new sex. (um, sex)
Open is the new closed. (software source code)
Small is the new big. (companies as investment opportunities)
Hate is the new love. (literature, I think)
Dean is the new McCain… and the new Carter, and Goldwater, and McGovern, and Reagan… (public nuisances)
Orange is the new black. (terror alert system)
Black is the new pink. (astronomy, color of black holes)
Blacker is the new black. (non-reflective surfaces for telescopes)
Someone’s gotta make it stop!

UPDATE: Mark Liberman, also at Language Log, comments. After some further Googling, Liberman discovered that many others have also observed (and been annoyed by) the "X is the new Y" trend.

UPDATE (added 12/6/2005): Shortly after composing this post, I proposed a word for these formulaic clichés: "snowclones." With Pullum's blessing, my coinage has become the term of art. Check out the Wikipedia entry. Given the number of people who find this page while following snowclone links, I thought it wise to add an update that actually includes the word. If I can claim no other accomplishment when I die, at least I'll have one neologism to my name!