A snowclone is a variable, but formulaic, cliché where a familiar idiom is modified to fit new circumstances. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum defines a snowclone as “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.”
A classic example is X is the new Y, where the two variables can be substituted, as in blue is the new black. Another might be I’m not X, but I play one one on TV, which was originally doctor and first uttered in a 1986 commercial for Vick’s Formula 44 cough syrup by actor Peter Bergman, who played a doctor on the soap opera All My Children. (There are claims that actor Robert Young, who played Marcus Welby, M.D. uttered the phrase in a 1970s commercial, but this has not been documented.)
The name for this phenomenon, snowclone, was coined by blogger Glen Whitman in January 2004. He was commenting on a post in Language Log by Pullum discussing the phenomenon and calling for people to come up with a name for it. Pullum used as an example the if Eskimos have X words for snow..., which is a common setup line in newspaper articles.
(Source: Language Log)
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