The surprising history of ‘snowflake’ as a political insult

On the history and the future of this election season’s iciest insult.

CREDIT: Pete Souza
CREDIT: Pete Souza

Snowflake has snowballed.

Before last year, snowflake-as-slang lingered on the fringes of the lexicon. It was a largely non-partisan slight — a mean, though not hateful, dig at millennials perceived to have an outsize sense of their own individuality and, by extension, importance. Helicopter parented to the hilt, millennials supposedly graduated from college (into a dismal economy with unprecedented mountains of student debt) too coddled for this cruel world, ill-equipped to face life’s indignities with dignity.

But as 2016 dawned, snowflake made its way to the mainstream and, in the process, evolved into something more vicious. The insult expanded to encompass not just the young but liberals of all ages; it became the epithet of choice for right-wingers to fling at anyone who could be accused of being too easily offended, too in need of “safe spaces,” too fragile.

You can see this linguistic evolution play out on Urban Dictionary: The 2008 definition of snowflake was “a person who think they are OMGUNIQUE!, but is, in fact, just like everyone else.” That was redefined in May of 2016 as “an overly sensitive person, incapable of dealing with any opinions that differ from their own. These people can often be seen congregating in ‘safe zones’ on college campuses.” A more aggressive definition went up the following month: “An entitled millenial SJW-tard who runs to her “safe space” to play with stress toys and coloring books when she gets ‘triggered” by various innocuous “microsaggressions’ [sic].”

Urban Dictionary
Urban Dictionary

Devastated by Brexit? Snowflake. Protesting the election of Donald J. Trump? Precious snowflake. Asking to take down a statue of a racist on your campus? Classic Generation Snowflake. Sexual assault survivors requesting trigger warnings on texts that include graphic rape scenes? Special snowflakes. Last November, snowflake was deemed one of Collins English Dictionary’s words of the year. That same month, the L.A. Times included snowflake in “a guide to the language of the ‘alt-right.’” The Guardian called it “the defining insult of 2016.”

“I think it’s gone beyond slang,” said Jonathon Green, slang lexicographer and author of several dictionaries of slang. “It’s a very specific, very politicized insult.”

The rise of the insult, Green continued, “is something, actually, that’s bigger than snowflake. In the aftermath of Trump and Brexit, there has swelled up this vocabulary of vilification. There’s always been one — my world, slang, is one of the great proponents and coiners of it — but it seems to me that these kind of very vicious, really, because they’re not meant with a laugh, these quite vicious insults have sprung up specifically within these two political areas, these explosions, that happened last year… This kind of very hard insult has come out of it. It just reflects the fact that there are huge and very strongly felt divisions in both our societies.”

As insults go, it’s hard to think of one that so clearly conveys so many flaws at once: Fragility and self-importance, weakness and self-delusion.

Its power, Green said, comes largely from that duality. Snowflake “works in two ways. It melts under the heat, it has no backbone, no spine, no guts, no spirit, anything. It just fades away as soon as people are nasty to it. And the other side is the special side of it. Every little snowflake is different and has its own identity.”

And think of what happens to a snowflake once you get your hands on it. It dissolves right in your palm.

Effective slang possesses the same quality as a well-crafted pop song: It gets stuck in your head, whether you like it or not.

So it helps that the sound of “snowflake” is appealing, said Ben Yagoda, an author and language expert who wrote about the rise of the term for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog. Snowflake opens soft and closes with a hard “k” kicker. “There’s this idea in comedy that words with a ‘k’ ’are funny… and it has impact to it.” Snowflake also clicks nicely with “special” — and, for formal occasions, sparkly — which “rhetorically, has the alliteration going for it.”

A woman holds a poster during a protest opposing Britain’s exit from the European Union in Berlin, Saturday, July 2, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo /Markus Schreiber
A woman holds a poster during a protest opposing Britain’s exit from the European Union in Berlin, Saturday, July 2, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo /Markus Schreiber

“Buttercup,” another favorite of the anti-liberal set, has that hard “k,” too, as does “cupcake,” notably used by Megyn Kelly in her memoir, Settle for More, in describing her son, a “walking cupcake” in his mother’s eyes, not to be confused with “the cupcakes on our nation’s campuses who need safe spaces.” But “snowflake has more things going for it,” said Yagoda. Cupcake and buttercup do have the smack of the feminine about them — like the safe-for-work way of calling someone a cuck, an “alt-right” burn that originated in pornography— but snowflake carries with it “that idea of being unique and precious,” said Yagoda.

“It’s a great word for bullying,” Yagoda added. “Bullies’ historically favorite word is ‘crybaby,’ and nothing is probably more likely to elicit a bullied person crying than to be called a crybaby. That pulls the trigger.” Snowflake is another self-fulfilling prophesy. If being called a snowflake offends you, well, of course it does. You’re a snowflake.

“And finally, it sort of hits home because I think, deep down, everybody is a snowflake,” Yagoda said. “Everybody is special and a bit sensitive to being insulted or mocked or defeated or whatever. Good bullies understand that the most effective insults are the ones that hit home.”

Emily Brewster, lexicographer and associate editor at Merriam-Webster, found what she believes is the earliest use of snowflake as an epithet: Early 1860s in Missouri, as the Civil War began and citizens battled over whether or not slavery should continue within the state. “A snowflake was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery,” Brewster said. “They were called snowflakes because it said they valued white people over black people.”

The other two bits of Missouri slang from that political moment — the “claybank,” a group that wanted gradual transition from slavery to freedom plus compensation for slave owners, and the “charcoals,” also known as “brown radicals,” who pushed for immediate emancipation and for black people to be able to enlist in the armed forces — didn’t stick. And for a long time, neither did snowflake. It was about a century before snowflake slang made its way back into the vernacular, when it was used to describe “a white person or a black person who was perceived as acting too much like a white person,” according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

“Snowball” was also used as a term for a black person, Green said, as far back as the 1780s; Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms from 1848 defines snowball as “a jeering appellation for a negro.” For a time, snowflake and snowball were used interchangeably in this manner. “It’s this thing about, ‘ha, ha, ha, here’s a black person, let’s call him something white,’” said Green. And even as snowflake and snowball were used in technically non-racial contexts, like as slang for cocaine, “it’s [still] to do with the whiteness.”

The earliest documented appearance of snowflake with its current gist comes from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, published in 1996 (emphasis added):

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

The quote was included in the 1999 film adaptation of the same name, in the dulcet tones of a Brad Pitt voiceover:

Fellow dude-novelist Bret Easton Ellis picked up on the theme in an episode of his podcast last August, in a riff that asked (rhetorically, one assumes), “little snowflake justice warriors… when did you all become grandmothers and society matrons, clutching your pearls in horror at someone who has an opinion about something, a way of expressing themselves that’s not the mirror image of yours, you sniveling little weak-ass narcissists?”

Who is the snowflakiest snowflake of all? Maybe it’s not the most delicate, politically-correct progressive. Maybe the call is coming from inside the house. Maybe it’s President-elect Trump.

He is, after all, a man who has yet to display an ability to laugh at himself. He is offended by, seemingly, everything anyone has ever said about him that is not sufficiently glowing. He is a man who cannot even bear the (really rather soft) satire slung his way by Saturday Night Live.

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live.”
Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live.”

This we’re-not-snowflakes-you’re-the-snowflake take started catching on in the weeks after the election. And perhaps that is a signal of the end of snowflake’s reign as the mockery of the moment. It doesn’t appear that snowflake, like other politically-charged insults of the 2016 election cycle, will be adopted by its target as a badge of honor and enjoy a second run. (See also: deplorable, nasty women, failing pile of garbage.) Liberals aren’t selling snowflake sweatshirts and donating the proceeds to progressive causes. At least, not yet.

“I think in this day and age, the half-life of these vogue terms is short,” said Yagoda. “I predict that it has had its day and people are already onto the next thing.” The speed with which words and catchphrases come and go, Yagoda said, has accelerated with the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, which have created “a perceived and real need to be fresh and new and hip.”

That snowflake is a specific type of word — a name-calling insult — only supports Yagoda’s certainty that it will fall out of favor before long. “If you look at the history of slang, probably next to words for sex and bodily functions, that might be the category with the biggest turnover.”

Brewster disagreed. “I don’t see it fading out anytime soon. As long as there is this idea that some people require special treatment. It is so easily lobbed at anybody who complains about being criticized or not having access to things they need.”

“Will it last or not?” Green, slang lexicographer, asked. He cited one of the most enduring profanities in the English language: “The word fuck, why did it last? It was better than the alternative.”

“Words last,” he said. “Because they work.”