Recently in the Phrases Category

Unlubricated

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“Overhead he heard the tiny, unlubricated sound of a bat.” —Theodore Sturgeon, “Excalibur and the Atom,” 1951.

Reading these old Sturgeon stories is reminding me that prose can unashamedly use poetic metaphors. They're the kind of metaphors that never even occur to me to write, but I love reading them; maybe I should practice more.

I think of that kind of thing as having been more common in the '30s through the '50s than it is today; see also my Words & Stuff column (from 1999) on similes, featuring Leigh Brackett, Raymond Chandler, Edith Wharton, and Beryl Markham.

A phrase grows in Brooklyn

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Recently happened across a snowclone that I hadn't really noticed before: phrases of the form “an X grows in Brooklyn,” riffing on the title A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Headline writers in particular seem to find it irresistible. A quick Google for ["a * grows in Brooklyn"] and variants of that produced the following very incomplete list:

  • American family
  • arena
  • Bionic Garden
  • brie (bonus points for rhyming with the original)
  • 'Burgh sandwich
  • child
  • congestion [possibly not actually a reference; it was missing the initial “a,” and I can imagine someone saying it without intending to snowclone]
  • cook
  • Giant Sinkhole
  • gourd
  • Jew
  • me
  • natural-gas pipeline
  • Opera
  • scene
  • Sci Fi Bookstore/Publisher [somehow doesn't have the same ring to it]
  • shoe
  • tee
  • union
  • tour
  • Très

And so on.

Of course, the snowclone is actually more adaptable than that; it's really “a X grows in Y.” (Where Y is a place.)

  • A Tree Grows in Joplin
  • A cactus grows in Buffalo
  • A feud grows in Jersey
  • A Factory Grows in Haiti
  • A Green Home Grows in Bucktown

But as you get further from the original, it gets harder to tell whether the writer intended a reference or not. “A Flower Grows in Ireland”? Possibly. “A Flower Grows in Stone”? Probably not.

Arguably, the snowclone template is even more flexible: “a X Ys in Z.” For example, if a certain national laboratory were to develop phosphorescent insects, I'm sure that dozens of headlines would proclaim, “A Flea Glows in Brookhaven.” But when you get to this level of distance from the original phrase, you have to maintain strong ties (such as rhyming or other similarities) to make it look like a reference at all; a phrase like “a baby perambulates in San Francisco” probably doesn't retain enough of the original to be recognizable.

I imagine it would be possible to characterize/categorize the ways in which a snowclone can recognizably stretch, but that goes way beyond the scope of this entry, so I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

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