As winter and the festive season approach (in the northern hemisphere anyway – apologies to those of you who may instead be enjoying a barbie on the beach), I have chosen snowflake as the Word of the Month. Let us consider what most of us know about snowflakes:
- they are small
- they are delicate and fragile
- they will melt very quickly unless the conditions are just right
- they are exquisitely beautiful, with intricate patterns
- every single one is unique
Even to those who hate snow, an individual snowflake is surely a thing of beauty and wonder.
All these qualities have given rise to a new, figurative use of snowflake – to be added at a future update to OALD online. Parents who love their children very much, think they are special and unique, and want to protect them from any possible harm, think of them as precious ‘snowflakes’.
Except they don’t. I can find no evidence of snowflake being used in a loving and positive way by parents. Instead, this new meaning of snowflake seems to date back to the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, later adapted into a film, and containing the line:
You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.
The concept of the ‘special snowflake’ was negative and ironic from the beginning. If we look at lines containing snowflake in OUP’s New Monitor Corpus, we can see that it is never parents who use the snowflake metaphor about their children, but always other people:
And please can we stop making parents and their unique little snowflakes the single most important thing in Australian society.
the kind of beautiful, unique snowflake your mother always told you you were before you realized she was lying to you
She has a horrendous case of ‘special snowflake syndrome’.
Even the lines that seem to be positive are actually dripping with sarcasm:
You are a perfect snowflake and it’s everyone else who’s wrong.
Young people of the ‘snowflake generation’ are often criticized for being very sensitive and easily offended. These are the students who no-platform speakers whose opinions they find offensive (see the WotM for March 2017); and who request trigger warnings (WotM September 2017) when difficult issues are to be discussed in class. One lecturer at Cambridge University has recently vigorously defended his use of a trigger warning (for a lecture discussing rape scenes in Shakespeare and modern drama) after his students were – quite unfairly, he felt – criticized as ‘snowflakes’.
Call me a snowflake, but I also find the term snowflake unsettling, for two main reasons: one, because it has appropriated something innocent and beautiful and turned it into something pejorative and nasty; and two, because it seems to be an intergenerational thing – the older generation insulting the younger. It is undeniably an example of the creativeness of language and metaphor, and the power of culture in spreading memes. However, there is already a backlash against the term – the ‘snowflake generation’ may prove they are not such snowflakes after all.
Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.