Who You Calling ‘Snowflake’?

After the presidential election, a Montclair, N.J., store owner invited some like-minded souls to paint a mural on the boarded-up windows of her shop: a multicolored heart and, under a rainbow, the words “Make America Love Again.” The next morning she found that some changes had been made:

Screen Shot 2016-12-03 at 3.02.13 PM

Photo credit: Hakika DuBose, BuzzFeed

In a November 14 article, The Des Moines Register reported:

One Iowa lawmaker has a message for any state university that spends taxpayer dollars on grief counseling for students upset at the outcome of last week’s presidential election: “Suck it up, buttercup.”

“I’ve seen four or five schools in other states that are establishing ‘cry zones’ where they’re staffed by state grief counselors and kids can come cry out their sensitivity to the election results,” said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton. “I find this whole hysteria to be incredibly annoying. People have the right to be hysterical … on their own time.”

Kaufmann plans to introduce a piece of legislation he’s calling the “suck it up, buttercup bill” when the Legislature resumes in January.

If buttercup sounds familiar, it should: it was the name of characters in H.M.S. Pinafore and the millennial cartoon series Powerpuff Girls, as well as the addressee of the 1968 karaoke favorite “Build Me Up Buttercup.” Its use more or less as the equivalent of “crybaby” — so common in the wake of the election — is more recent, represented in neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor Green’s Dictionary of Slang. A March 2013 entry on Urban Dictionary reads:

A male child, usually in his twenties, who refuses to get his act together. A spoiled brat, who thinks his parents, and everyone else, are obligated to support him forever, because he’s special, and exists. A freeloader.
Mike’s a buttercup. He never pulls his weight …

The fact that buttercup is now usually preceded by “suck it up” I attribute to assonance with the “build me up” song.

But buttercup isn’t even the most commonly used epithet in this context, running second to a word whose provenance seems to originate in a quote from the 1996 novel Fight Club: “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.”

This month, the Los Angeles Times named snowflake — sometimes rendered as “special snowflake” — as one of the key terms used by the self-styled “alt-right,” along with cuck, masculinist, and human biodiversity (otherwise known as “racism”). It was in the lexicon as early as May 2015, when a Breitbart News article decried campus “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”: “Why should anyone take on six figures of debt so their child can be herded into a life of blighted ignorance and political indoctrination by a blizzard of Special Snowflakes?”

The following month, a definition appeared on Urban Dictionary:

An entitled millenial [sic] SJW-tard who runs to her “safe space” to play with stress toys and coloring books when she gets “triggered” by various inocuous [sic] “microsaggressions”. [sic]
Fiona ran away sobbing after I told her I was voting for Donald Trump. What a freaking snowflake.

(SJW=social justice warrior. -tard: favorite suffix of the Breitbart crowd, as in “lib-tard.”)

What may have sent the word into mainstream prominence  was a widely commented-on rant by the once-prominent novelist Bret Easton Ellis on an August 2016 episode of his podcast. He was complaining about the reaction to an article about the singer Sky Ferreira, the (male) writer of which made extensive leering comments about her looks. Ellis:

Oh, clearly you didn’t think the little snowflake justice warriors everywhere, from the LAist to Flavorwire to Jezebel to Teen Vogue to Vulture, were going to let this innocuous piece go unnoticed without having a hissy fit? Oh yes, most deliciously, the little snowflakes got so pissed off and were just sooo unbelievably offended by this piece, that they had to denounce it. Oh, little snowflakes, 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? The high moral tone from social justice warriors is always out of scale with what they are indignant about. When did this hideous and probably nerve-wracking way of living begin transforming you into the authoritarian language police, with your strict set of little rules and manufactured outrage, demanding apologies from every sandwich or salad you didn’t like?

Snowflake has actually taken hold a little earlier and more widely in Britain, notably in the expressions “snowflake generation” (or “generation snowflake”), which was included on The Collins English Dictionary‘s words of the year list. (The definition: “The young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations.”)

Bullies have long recognized “crybaby” as a very effective, perhaps unmatched, insult, mainly because any defense can be framed as more crying! The same is true of buttercup and snowflake. The trouble is that unless your reaction is Gary Cooper-esque silence or a sock in the jaw (also Cooper-esque), everyone is a snowflake when he or she feels wronged. Some feel wronged more readily than others, of course. Take Donald Trump, with his complaints that Saturday Night Live and The New York Times are always being mean to him, that his 2.5 million-vote loss to Hillary Clinton wasn’t fair because the other side cheated, that a Hamilton cast member shouldn’t have directed some respectful remarks to Mike Pence because, in the precise phrasing of generation snowflake, the theater should be “a safe space.”

It’s not surprising, then, that his opponents have started appropriating these words, as in the heading of this Tumblr devoted to reproducing tweets of Trump voters who have realized that maybe, just maybe, they made the wrong call:

Screen Shot 2016-12-04 at 11.15.06 AM