Tuesday 30 January 2024

The Many Changing Meanings of "Snowflake"

In the early 1860s, the term "Snowflake" was used in Missouri to refer to a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery. The so-called Snowflakes hoped that the civil war would not put an end to slavery and were contrasted with two other groups, the Claybanks (who wanted a gradual transition out of slavery) and the Charcoals (who demanded immediate emancipation for Black people). 

In the 1970s, snowflake became "a disparaging term for a white man or for a black man who was seen as acting white".

Chuck Palahniuk used the expression in his book "Fight Club" published in 1996 in a different context. A member of an anti-consumerist project tells another member: "You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone, and we are all part of the same compost pile." In its 1999 movie adaptation, the line goes like this:

Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not the beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. We are all part of the same compost heap.

Palahniuk was probably not the first person to use this metaphor, of each of us being a unique snowflake, uniquely beautiful and each worth treasuring (via). Now snowflake is a slang term for a young person (the generation that became adults in or after the 2010s) with "an inflated sense of uniqueness", a rather extreme sense of entitlement and who is easily offended and shows little resilience. Snowflake became "the defining insult" in 2016 (via and via).

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photograph by Garry Winogrand via