What's need[ed] 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. (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.
wrote the above in the linguistics
blog Language Log1
on 27th October 2003. He was talking about the hundreds of variations he'd found in a Google search along the lines "In space no one can hear you *
". The endless variability and the way this allusion
had turned into a very malleable
kind of cliché
, one with a variable
slot in it, reminded him of his own bête noire
, the one about Eskimo
s being supposed to have umpteen
words for snow, trotted out by lazy journalists
in the open-ended form "If Eskimos have (insert made-up number here)
words for snow, then..." (... Californians and sun, or Britons and rain, ad lib.). In fact Pullum is a linguist best known for his book of acerbic
, popular essays entitled The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax
In his Language Log2 of 16th January 2004 he announced the winner of his quest to find a good name for the cliche in kit form: snowclone. It was coined by Glen Whitman, and Professor Pullum performs a service to lexicography by officially recording the time to the very second when it entered the public domain (by e-mail), the previous day.
The word "snowclone" seems to have taken off, in language blogs anyway, and Pullum is influential enough that it should stick. A lot of the time these are deliberately used as a knowing or insider allusion, but a lot of them -- especially the Eskimo snow nonsense -- are used lazily, with no real point to including the context. Other examples with hundreds of variations include:
X is the new Y.
I for one welcome our new X overlords.
A X-er shade of Y.
X is the dark matter of Y.
X, the hidden epidemic.
X, the second-oldest profession.
X considered harmful.
crunchy X goodness
We put the X in Y.
X are from Mars, Y are from Venus.
In Soviet Russia Y X you.
What would X do?
Another good new word coined in Language Log is eggcorn.