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Word of the Week: ‘snowflake’


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘snowflake’.


“You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else”. Ouch.

Chuck Palahniuk’s 90s cult classic ‘Fight Club’ is often believed to be the colloquial origin of our word of the week (and insult du jour), ‘snowflake’.

The word got our linguistic senses tingling following the launch of the British Army’s divisive £1.5 million recruitment campaign.

Evoking the historic World War One image of British war minister, Lord Kitchener, the posters earnestly target “snowflakes” (for their compassion), “selfie addicts” (for their confidence), and “me me me millennials” (for their self-belief) as new recruits.

While some have been left baffled by the cringe-worthy marketing move – which apparently aims to turn negative stereotypes about young people on their heads – others, like MP James Cleverly, have publicly lauded the campaign.

Guardsman Stephen McWhirter – the campaign’s poster boy – has since threatened to quit the forces, claiming he did not agree to have his face connected with the word ‘snowflake’ and has been left open to “ridicule”. But why?

Down to the nitty gritty…

A ‘snowflake’ traditionally refers to the natural phenomena of: “a flake of snow displaying delicate sixfold symmetries” and was first recorded in 1725.

Later, in 1860s Missouri, US, a ‘snowflake’ referred to a person who opposed the abolition of slavery, hoped it would survive the civil war, and valued white people over black people.

Nearly a 100 years later, in the 1970s, it took on a similarly racialised meaning as a derogatory term for a black person seen to be “acting” white.

The fact this word once referred to those who favoured whiteness, only makes its current and widespread use as a term of insult more ironic.

It is now more commonly used in a disparaging way to refer to “generation snowflake” – the cohort of young adults or millennials deemed to be self-obsessed, overly-sensitive and too easily offended by opinions which differ from their own.

They are the champions of safe spaces, trigger warnings, adulting (the act of completing mundane but necessary tasks), clicking instead of clapping, the Green Party and – their critics would suggest – an overinflated sense of uniqueness (for as you may well remember, no two snowflakes are the same).

The source of the neologism “generation snowflake” – a form of millennial-bashing at its finest – is most often-cited as Claire Fox’s book I Find That Offensive!, a call for young snowflakes to throw off the bubble wrap, enter the real world and just take a joke. (Yes! Even if it’s at someone else’s – or their own – expense).