Sunday October 29, 2006


Some of the phrasal templates that have come to be known in the linguistiblogosphere as snowclones seem only to appear in certain discourse contexts.  A few weeks ago I wrote about one such, Where have you gone, X?, which seems to turn up all the time in titles.  Recently, another title-specific snowclone occurred to me: slouching towards X.

The original source for this one is William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming".  The last two lines of the poem read:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The odd use of slouch as a verb of motion, along with the general sense of foreboding, seems to have captured the imagination of many writers.  Variations on Yeats's theme turn up all the time in the titles and subtitles of books, articles, and songs.  A little Google-grease produced a list of 285 variants (which is by no means comprehensive).  Note that there are actually two slightly different versions of the pattern: slouching toward X and slouching towards X.  I've combined the counts for these two versions below—if you're interested in the difference and trans-Atlantic distribution of toward and towards, see this old post.

Here are the most commonly occurring (or interesting) of the 285.  (It occurs to me, by the way,  that if this list had appeared in The Onion it might have been titled, "What are we slouching towards?")

Slouching toward[s]... gHits comments
bethlehem 115900 the original: a book of essays by Joan Didion and also an episode of Angel
gomorrah 56020 a book by Robert Bork subtitled Modern Liberalism and American Decline
lawyerhood 19600 a defunct blog
mediocrity 11657 a number of different articles
utopia 5141 a book by blogger Brad DeLong subtitled The Economic History of the Twentieth Century
fargo 4095 a book by Neal Karlen subtitled A Two-Year Saga Of Sinners And St. Paul Saints At The Bottom Of The Bush Leagues With Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie And Me
tora bora 2450 an article by Sean Naylor subtitled What would it really have taken to catch bin Laden
kalamazoo 1980 a book by Peter De Vries
creation 1850 apparently a feature in Time about cloning, though the current version of the page doesn't include that phrase
ayodhya 1625 a book about Hindu nationalism
liverpool 1618 an album by The Loud Family
tehran 1360
fascism 1240
kristallnacht 1083
bantry 1056 a blog
banality 969
bedlam 903 a work of interactive fiction
broadband 887 a Harvard case study
gommorah 845 misspelled
genocide 825
alphaville award 753 an award for buildings that lean
nirvana 721 a book of poems by Charles Bukowski
ganache 704 another blog
theocracy 661
armageddon 654
secession 644 an article about Kosovo
birmingham 642
miers 624 Bork again, going back to the slouching well.  Stop him before he slouches again!
beastliness 591 an article subtitled Richard Wright's Anatomy of Thomas Dixon - Critical Essay
irrelevance 496
byzantium 475 an excerpt from a book by Robert Conquest
baghdad 377
gomorra 294 another misspelling
greatness 262
respectability 232
disaster 184
democracy 153
zion and more lies 133 a book by Robert Flynn
global enslavement 129
appeasement 127
statism 120
babylon 120
johannesburg 117
gamorrah 112 another misspelling
bias 111
kadima 108
dystopia 91 compare with utopia, above—dystopia has a lot of ground to make up
oblivion 88
gomorrha 88 geez, it's not that hard to spell
populism 80
pampering the enemy 78
pluralism 77
middle age 77
kosovo 74
gondolin 65 Lord of the Rings fanfic
manzanar 54
dictatorship 54
mecca 53 an excerpt from an 1856 article predicting the end of Islam (!)
bork 46 man, he's all over this snowclone
babel 46
withdrawal 45
dublin 44
the gulag 43
nemesis 42
dayton 42 a review of three books about Yugoslavia
brooklyn 41
urschleim 39 yet another blog
tyranny 39
biodevastation 39
y2k 38 a Salon article from the late 90's.  Remember the 90's?  (Remember Salon?)
sodom 35 I like the symmetry of this one
gemorrah 35 let's keep count: that's five misspellings...
eurasia 31 Oceania?  2 gHits.  Eastasia?  None.
multilingual urls 30
gattaca 28
dhimmitude 26
nuremberg 23
gommorrah 22 six misspellings...
cimmeria 20 a brief article about Arnold Schwarzenegger's political career
balkanization 19
booklessness 18 the horror!
gethsemane 16 another defunct blog
gonorrhea 13 funny!
damascus 12
eurabia 11
apostasy 11
tralfamadore 10
new jersey 10 poor New Jersey
metempsychosis 10
nowhere in particular 9
singularity 8
slouching 7 it's meta!
gehenna 7 another variation on Bork, I'll bet
gammorah 6 seven misspellings...
godwin 5 presumably Mike Godwin
beslan 5
battlesuits 5 a blog post about the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton that surely should have been titled "Striding..."
londonistan 4
internment 4
incarnation 4
gotterdammerung 4
gomorroah 4 eight misspellings...
hogwarts 3
episcopalianism 3 the horror!
buchenwald 3
appomattox 3
arisia 2 the con, not the planet or the Green Lantern
truthiness 1
squaresville 1 the horror!
panglossia 1
olduvai 1
gamora 1 Note: not Gamera.  This makes nine total misspellings of Gomorrah.

The meaning of this snowclone is pretty clear from the examples above—there's something approaching, and it usually something bad that the author wants to warn us away from.  There's also, even in the comparatively few variants where the goal is something positive (e.g. utopia, greatness, respectibility), a sense of inevitability, or at least of a slippery slope being slid down.  What's interesting is how the semantics of this phrasal template have mutated from its original form.

I should warn you that I'm not an expert on Yeats, but I've been able to find some material about "The Second Coming" online, including the Wikipedia article.  Apparently, Yeats believed that history is arranged in "gyres" that produce long, slow cycles of change.  He further believed that the then-current gyre (he was writing more than 80 years ago), which he associated with reason, science, and the modern world, was coming to a close, and that something unknown was coming to replace it.  The "rough beast" in his poem represents this new era of history.  So in the poem, we don't know what's coming, exactly, but we're going to find out when it reaches Bethlehem.

The sense of something ominously approaching is retained in the great majority of the uses of the snowclone above, but something important has changed.  In Yeats's poem, what's ominous is the mysterious beast and what it represents; Bethlehem is a metaphor for birth and a reference to the Biblical story of Christ's birth.  In the snowclone, it's no longer the beast that's slouching; it's us, all of us collectively, and it's the undesirable goal that we're moving towards that fills the slot in the template.

This is an interesting development, but I think I can see why the snowclone has mutated in this way.  Imagine we wanted to use the original form of the phrase to express, for example, what Robert Bork expressed with Slouching Towards Gomorrah.  Since Bethlehem is just a metaphor for birth, we somehow have to ascribe the the metaphorical meaning of Gomorrah (i.e. depravity) to the beast, then repeat the rest of the phrase.  We're left with something that's way too long to serve as a pithy title:

And what depraved beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Instead, the general meaning of the snowclone has remained the same, but the structure of the phrasal template has been turned inside-out, producing shorter, title-ready results.  I suspect this innovation was original with Didion, and that the later variants are therefore imitations of her title.  If this is true, then the change from the original slouches to the progressive slouching would be due to her as well.

OK, time to wrap up this post—I have to be slouching towards bed.  (Ominously and inevitably, of course.)

[Update:  I wrote above that I suspected the reanalysis of this phrasal template is due to Joan Didion, but it occurs to me that the story must be more complicated than that.  Didion's title was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a direct reference to "The Second Coming" with no change in the geographical goal of slouching; the only innovation was changing the verb to the progressive slouching.  It fell to some later writer to first re-target the template by plugging in a new place name.  Of the titles cited above, the earliest whose date I can verify is Peter De Vries's 1983 Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, although I'm not sure how famous that book is—I've never heard of it, for what it's worth.  Robert Bork's 1996 Slouching Towards Gomorrah seems to be the most widely known (count the gHits), so it might be that the later variants are imitations of Bork rather than of De Vries or Didion.]

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And of course there's John McCarthy's recent Slouching towards optimality. How ominous is that ;)?!

Posted by: Pavel Iosad at Oct 30, 2006 7:38:54 AM

"Slouching Towards Bethlehem" is also the title of a blog, maintained by Jess Nevins, librarian, author, and Alan Moore exegete:

Posted by: FrF at Oct 30, 2006 11:32:19 AM

I prefer Dan Savage's "Skipping towards Gomorrah." A nice twist on the Borkian phrase.

Posted by: eh nonymous at Nov 13, 2006 2:11:03 PM