By Lambert Strether of Corrente
And now for something completely different. Because I’ve had it up to here with the election, at least for today, I’m going to provide three reference works so you can burnish your language skills, which is a subtask for burnishing your critical thinking skills. For each reference work, I’ll link to it, see what they have to say about themselves, give an example of their work, and then apply the example to contemporary politics.
Be relevant. Language Log is our site, where we write about whatever we want. Our main concern is for the quality of experience for our tens of thousands of readers. As a commenter, you are a guest, and should comment on the content of the post you’re commenting on. If you want to write about some other topic, do it on your own blog.
And “whatever we want” seems to be mostly uber-nerdy language topics; the current front page includes posts for AI panics, Advances in tuba-to-text conversion, Another fake AI failure?, Apostrophe in Hebrew, Aravrit, “Arrival” gets the wug treatment, Dialect death, Chinese transcriptions of Donald Trump’s surname, Inflection in Georgian and in English, Language vs. script, “Mixed” languages, …”such matters as Opinion, not real worth, gives a value to”, and Using animal images to cast aspersions. Lots of material with contemporary relevance there!
But I want to link to this site for one concept in particular: The post on snowclones (sightings listed here). A snowclone is a phrasal template:
At last a suitable name has been proposed for the some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists that have received occasional discussion on Language Log (here, in the first instance). I mean formulae like these (where the N, X, Y, Z are filled in to taste):
If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.
In space, no one can hear you X.
X is the new Y.
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.
Since we have a record of the exact time at which Glen hit Send and transmitted the new term to me (the first person to read it), lexicographers are in luck here: they can date the coining of snowclone to the second. So they may like to note for their future reference that this term was coined at 22:56:57 (that’s 3 seconds before 10:57 p.m.) on Thursday, January 15, 2004, in Northridge, California.
Nerdy! So you will see why I was so pleased to see alert reader anonymous in Southfield, MI spotting a snowclone in the wild. Slightly modified:
I have identified a motif that pretty much always gives away a Hillary bot- it was used about several dozen thousand times as part of ‘Correct the Record’ during the runup to November 8. And here we have it again. It goes like this: I was always in favor of [Person P] until I found out [Truth T].
Perhaps Correct the Record has a three-ring binder full of snowclones. Or they’re written up on whiteboards near the phone pits. Incidentally, there’s no reason you can’t adapt snowclones to your own purposes, or invent new ones. Snowclone activism!
Home Page: Silva Rhetorica. Here’s how the site describes itself:
This online rhetoric, provided by Dr. Gideon Burton of Brigham Young University, is a guide to the terms of classical and renaissance rhetoric. Sometimes it is difficult to see the forest (the big picture) of rhetoric because of the trees (the hundreds of Greek and Latin terms naming figures of speech, etc.) within rhetoric.
This site is intended to help beginners, as well as experts, make sense of rhetoric, both on the small scale (definitions and examples of specific terms) and on the large scale (the purposes of rhetoric, the patterns into which it has fallen historically as it has been taught and practiced for 2000+ years).
A forest is the metaphor for this site. Like a forest, rhetoric provides tremendous resources for many purposes. However, one can easily become lost in a large, complex habitat (whether it be one of wood or of wit). The organization of this central page and the hyperlinks within individual pages should provide a map, a discernible trail, to lay hold of the utility and beauty of this language discipline.
(Long time readers may be familiar with “Julia Gillard and the Art of Rhetoric” (2014), which uses the tools provided by Silva Rhetorica). The site also lists the disciplines it serves: Biblical Studies, Classical Studies, History, Humanities, Legal Studies, Literary Studies, Rhetoric and Communication Studies, and Social Sciences. Not unuseful, especially when you remember that figures of speech and narratives crafted in all those fields have endured for thousand of years.
Here’s one entry that may be of interest. Synedoche:
A whole is represented by naming one of its parts (genus named for species), or vice versa (species named for genus).
The rustler bragged he’d absconded with five hundred head of longhorns.
Both “head” and “longhorns” are parts of cattle that represent them as wholes
Listen, you’ve got to come take a look at my new set of wheels.
One refers to a vehicle in terms of some of its parts, “wheels”
“He shall think differently,” the musketeer threatened, “when he feels the point of my steel.”
A sword, the species, is represented by referring to its genus, “steel”
Or from the present day:
Those #BernieBros are the absolute worst!
The whole is Sanders supporters; the part is those Sanders supporters who happen to be bros. Of course, the interesting question is why that part was chosen for the job of representing the whole. Eh?
Closely allied to synecdoche is metonymy, “reference to something or someone by naming one of its attributes.” Metonymy is often used in identity politics (“one of” its attributes) as opposed to intersectionality (which permits, or should permit, reference by multiple attributes).
Home Page: TV Tropes. Unlike the other two sites, TV Tropes is a wiki, so you could add your own material. I like it because I haven’t watched TV — except for occasional sightings in public settings like airport lounges — and so I need a place where I can check cultural refernces. Here’s how they introduce themselves:
Merriam-Webster defines trope as a “figure of speech.” For creative writer types, tropes are more about conveying a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details.
The wiki is called “TV Tropes” because TV is where we started. Over the course of a few years, our scope has crept out to include other media. Tropes transcend television. They reflect life. Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, does its best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere.
Here’s an example: The Loveable Rogue trope:
A person who breaks the law, for their own personal profit, but is nice enough and charming enough to allow the audience to root for them, especially if they don’t kill or otherwise seriously harm anyone. It helps that none of their victims are anyone we know or that they’ve made sure the audience knew they were jerks, which makes it “okay” to steal from them. For extra points, he may even give some of his takings to the poor. The most legitimate way to make this trope work is by making the rogue a Justified Criminal who steals only to survive in an uncaring world that leaves him with no other option, ESPECIALLY if the laws are unfair and benefit a select few at the expense of others including the rogue.
Han Solo is an example of a Loveable Rogue:
Loveable Rogue: Han seems to be so lovable that all the pretty rotten things he has done seem so justifiable that they don’t seem to sink in.
A smuggler and scoundrel from the planet Corellia, and captain of the Millennium Falcon, one of the fastest ships in the galaxy, who was hired by Obi-Wan to provide him transport to Alderaan. Initially only aiding the Rebellion to pay off his debt to Jabba the Hutt, Han proves his heroism and becomes a leader of the Rebels.
Now, I picked Han Solo for a reason. Scott Adams:
My best guess is that the public is primed for Trump to act presidential because it fits the “bad boy turns good” movie we all have in our heads. Everyone likes Han Solo, the tough talker with the heart of gold. Trump is making that movie-like transition now, but don’t expect him to go easy on Clinton. The Clinton attacks will be vicious, but Trump’s overall vibe will still trend (spottily) toward presidential. That will give both sides plenty to talk about.
There’s disagreement! TV Tropes says Han Solo is a Loveable Rogue, and Scott Adams says he’s a “Bad Boy Turns Good.” Well, that’s the humantiies for you. Anyhow, if you want a compendium of “the movies playing in our heads,” TV Tropes is a good place to start.
I was actually going to look at a fourth site, Know Your Meme, but the moderation queue is so large that it demands my attention. So consider bookmarking these three (plus one) sites, and see if you, too, can spot rhetorical techniques, snowclones, and TV Tropes in the wild. MIx ’em, match ’em, share ’em with your friends!