Monday, 15 February 2010

Snowclones are born, not made

I've enthused before about the power of the Internet, Google Books in particular, at making available a vast corpus of text that enables linguistic searches to be conducted in a moment that would have taken decades of research in pre-Internet days. It's possible, for instance, to rapidly verify dates for the existence of a word: very handy when you run into "recency illusion", the term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky for the mistaken belief that words or expressions are new. The easy searchability of online texts has given rise to the creation and study of whole new classes of linguistic observations, such as the "snowclone", a term coined by Glen Whitman on January 15, 2004 and rapidly adopted in linguistics circles. The snowclone is a boilerplate cliché, alluding to a classic example "If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z", consisting of a template that appears repeatedly with various different words slotted in. See The Snowclones Database for many examples.

I spotted a snowclone yesterday in relation to an enquiry on Yahoo! Answers about the origin of the expression "Leaders are born, not made". It turned out the expression had no clear origin, and appeared instead to be one variant of a snowclone that dates back at least to the 1700s.

The story seems to have started with the aphorism "Poets ... are born, not made ...". This example is by Aphra Behn, 1714, but she's only one citer of this particular form of the aphorism expressed in Latin as Poeta nascitur non fit. Despite being frequently attributed to Horace or Cicero, it doesn't appear in any classical text. See Poeta Nascitur Non Fit: Some Notes on the History of an Aphorism, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Oct., 1941). This was the prototype and the predominant version in the 1700s; but then it snowballs. The snowclone started out as "Xs, like poets, are born, not made" and then the comparison to poets was gradually dropped in favour of "Xs are born, not made". Let's see some historical sightings.
  • "Thou hast a Genius, and a Swinger; Thou'rt Born, not Made a Ballad-singer" The Athenian Oracle, 1709
  • "Actors, like poets, must be born, not made" Mrs Griffiths, 1775
  • "... the historian, like the poet and the orator, must be born, not made" Tobias Smollett, 1783
  • "Like poets, historians are born, not made." Francois Xavier Martin, 1827
  • "Religions are born, not made" Alonzo Hill, 1831
  • "what is said of the poet is also thought of the philosopher — that he is born, not made" Willian Greer, 1832
  • "painters .. are born, not made" Unknown, The American Monthly Magazine, 1834
  • "rope-dancers — they are born, not made" Henry Junius Nott, 1834
  • "Still that which is accounted true of poets holds equally good of pickpockets—who are born, not made;" White & Meadows, 1838 1
  • "Genius: born not made" Thomas W Dorr, 1841
  • "the true orator is 'born, not made'" Sydney Smith, 1841
  • "Whigs, like Poets, are born, not made" Unknown, 1845
  • "A thoroughly vulgar person is — like the poet — born, not made", Chambers Edinburgh Journal, 1846
  • "The number, however, of those who are capable of discovering scientific principles is comparatively small; like the poet, they are 'born, not made'" Professor Henry, 1848
  • "A gentleman is like a poet — he is born, not made" Thomas Hood, 1848
  • "Colorist, the, is born, not made such" Osborn & Bouvier, 1849
  • "an editor must be 'born, not made'" Anon., 1850
  • "republicans are born, not made" William Starbuck Mayo, 1850
  • "A good housewife, like a good poet, is "'born, not made'" Eliza Cook, 1852
  • "a wit is born, not made" Yale Literary Magazine, 1857
  • "grooms, like poets, are born, not made" George Borrow, 1857
  • "The highest military genius, as the highest poetical genius, is born not made." Dublin University Magazine, 1857
  • "Housekeepers, like editors and poets, are born, not made", 'Hester', 1858
  • "angler must he be born, not made" P.P., 1860
  • "commanders are born, not made." Mr Fessenden, 1861
  • "Teachers are born, not made" Professor Wickersham, 1862
  • "Really good talkers are born, not made" The Continental Monthly, 1862
  • "true kings, like true poets, are born, not made." London Quarterly Review, 1862
  • "To make my position — that botanists must be born, not made — doubly sure" Botanical Society of Edinburgh, 1863
  • "but the true chopper, like the true poet, is 'born, not made.'" Journal of Horticulture and Gardening, 1865
  • "It is a mistake to think good servants, like poets, are born, not made" Cornhill Magazine, 1866
  • "Leaders are born, not made" Freewill Baptist Quarterly, 1867
  • "Now, real educators are born, not made" Liberty magazine, 1867
  • "The architect, as an artist, is born, not made" William Laxton, 1867
  • "mannerly people, like poets, are born, not made," Rhoda Broughton, 1868
  • "Wardens are 'born, not made'" The Methodist Review, 1868
  • "A good cook is born, not made, but he needs an immense deal of polishing" Putnam's Magazine, 1869
  • "Good bread makers, male or female, are born, not made" The Overland Monthly, 1869
  • "a dog-driver, like a poet, is born, not made" George Kennan, 1871
  • "the great mechanic, like the great poet, is born, not made" Samuel Smiles, 1884
  • "The Christian in short, like the poet, is born not made" Henry Drummond, 1887
  • "The genuine secretary is born, not made" Grant Allen, 1889
  • "snobs are born — not made" Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood, 1897
Bored now. Yes, it seems anybody with any kind of talent or distinctiveness is... And that's not exhaustive, nor even using up 19th century examples; a nice example of a snowclone that has persisted for around three centuries.

1. I wonder about the White & Meadows comment on pickpockets. Dashiell Hammett, in his 1923 From the Memoirs of a Private Detective, said of it: "Pocket-picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Anyone who is not crippled can become adept in a day".

PS: Thanks, kalebeul: cool. Indeed.

- Ray


  1. "Bored now."


  2. One of the best Blackadder II lines.

  3. Ah ... Blackadder is one of the things I know only by repute, not having been in the right place at the right time...

  4. It was one of Miranda Richardson's lines as the (psychopathic} Queen Elizabeth I. "Bored now" = "Shut up or be executed".