We used to love them because, just like us, every single one is unique. Now snowflakes are roundly reviled, the insult du jour used by conservatives to bully those oversensitive, rights-demanding liberals who seem to bristle at every executive order. But language, like the weather, is ever in flux, and many so-called snowflakes have recently noted that oversensitive whiners can be found all over the political spectrum. Comedian Neal Brennan even called President Trump “the biggest snowflake in America.” Like beauty and pornography, snowflakery is in the eye of the beholder.
The origin of “snowflake” as an insult may be found in Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel “Fight Club” and its 1999 movie adaptation, which included these lines: “Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.” Many current uses come with an adjective: You can be a “special snowflake,” a “sensitive snowflake,” or a “triggered snowflake,” which invokes another loaded concept, trigger warnings. The message remains the same: Sensitivity invites contempt. In the past year, this use of “snowflake” morphed from a flurry into a blizzard.
Then came the shift, when folks on the left turned on the lexical snowblower, flinging the insult right back against the insulters. As Peter Daou put it on Twitter: “These gun-toting red Americans who scoff at ‘wimpy’ ‘snowflake’ liberals sure are petrified of immigrants and refugees. Toughen up, people.” Rob Daviau echoed this thought: “The people calling everyone ‘snowflakes’ have been deeply offended by a Broadway show, a coffee shop, SNL, a Star Wars movie, and a beer ad.”
Many folks, such as actor George Takei, have extended the metaphor to emphasize the power of snowflakes: “The thing about ‘snowflakes’ is this: They are beautiful and unique, but in large numbers become an unstoppable avalanche that will bury you.”
Politics aside, “snowflake” is a deeply weird insult, since it was once the most popular symbol of uniqueness. Michael Adams, Indiana University professor and author of “In Praise of Profanity” and several other books about words, thinks that symbolism motivated the embrace of this word by conservatives, calling it an “. . . appropriation, not of the word but of some underlying concepts . . . [that] snowflake represents ultimate, universal diversity.” So calling people snowflakes is, ironically, a politically correct way to attack diversity.
Jonathon Green, editor of “Green’s Dictionary of Slang,” echoes Adams: “There is something very Trump Team-esque in taking something that the rest of the world sees as positive — snowflake — and smearing it with filth. Or as some would say, weaponizing it.”
Perhaps we should be grateful for the relative inoffensiveness of this word choice, because, as Green points out, most synonyms would drift into misogyny and homophobia: “If you want terms for ‘weakling’ or ‘coward’ or ‘sensitive,’ then slang already has 169 of them, though it can’t be denied that a percentage are synonymous with effeminate and therefore homosexual.” Adams also noted that during the election, candidate Donald Trump was in a now-famous video employing a term for female anatomy. “Hasn’t the president approved [this] for public discourse?“
There are a few apolitical uses of the term, too. The British have their “snowflake generation” (or “generation snowflake”), defined this year by Collins English Dictionary as “The young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations.” In early 2016, some dog walkers in Chicago were told by their supervisors to avoid snowflakes: a.k.a. scofflaws who believe their dogs are far too precious to suffer the indignity of a leash. Similar uses will likely be coined in the future.
“Snowflake” feels like an insult built to last. We’re all snowflakes in some sense. Unique? Sure. Sensitive to slights? Probably, unless you have the composure of the Dalai Lama, which is hard to find. Prone to outrage? Absolutely, especially at how outraged other people are. But while real snowflakes melt, metaphorical snowflakes are eternal.
Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.