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Strictly Speaking | Snowflake

The meanings of words are constantly changing, with some ending up very far from their original sense. Smug was originally a positive adjective, used for complimenting people on their smart appearance.

Obviously this praise went to their heads, giving us the modern sense of ‘self-satisfied’. Slang usage is particularly volatile, with such reversals sometimes happening very quickly. A case in point is snowflake. First recorded in the 1980s is the sense of a person (especially a child) who is considered special because they are unique – alluding to the belief that no two snowflakes are identical.

More recently the transient, fragile nature of a snowflake has been invoked to denigrate people who are considered overly sensitive. These might be the “precious little snowflakes of the liberal media” (Philadelphia Daily News, 25-01-12) or a “snowflake generation of insufferable idiots with the coping skills of overtired toddlers” (The Age, 17-12-17), depending on your view of the world. Note too how the noun use in the first example has evolved to an adjectival one in the second.

The slipperiness of these changes in meaning and function may make us yearn for a world where language stays fixed and certain. There’s a snowflake’s chance in hell of that happening.

Dr Adam Smith, is convener of the Editing and Electronic Publishing Program at Macquarie University.

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