You entitled kids get off my lawn!
October 5, 2007 1:48 PM   Subscribe

What's the origin of the phrase "special (little) snowflake?"

It's a meme expressing the idea that we have treated modern kids as so special and unique that they have a natural sense of entitlement. I've seen it occur with and without the word "little."

I haven't been able to find where the phrase comes from. My Google-fu is failing me.
posted by dw to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Fight Club
posted by zeoslap at 1:48 PM on October 5, 2007

Best answer: Specifically

"You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else"
posted by zeoslap at 1:49 PM on October 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

i think it predated fight club by quite a bit. otherwise that line wouldn't have had the resonance that it did. not sure exactly where it comes from, though. sorry.
posted by buka at 2:07 PM on October 5, 2007

oh, sorry. i misunderstood the question. yeah, it was fight club.
posted by buka at 2:07 PM on October 5, 2007

Sounds like something Steve Buscemi said, but I can't place it.
posted by Brocktoon at 2:09 PM on October 5, 2007

i think it predated fight club by quite a bit. otherwise that line wouldn't have had the resonance that it did.

I can't say whether or not it predates Fight Club, but I disagree. It's a reference to the common factoid that every snowflake has a unique pattern. It doesn't need to have been a pre-existing stock phrase for the Fight Club line to have made sense.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:09 PM on October 5, 2007

I'm sure that somebody somewhere made an equivalent statement before Fight Club. I'm sure many people did, actually. But it was popularized and entered the general consciousness through Fight Club. And probably specifically through the film rather than the novel.

I mean, somebody certainly said something equivalent to "To be or not to be" before Shakespeare, but when you quote it now everyone knows who you are quoting.
posted by Justinian at 2:19 PM on October 5, 2007

Response by poster: It's a reference to the common factoid that every snowflake has a unique pattern.

Yes, I know that, but I'm wondering how it entered into this particular context (i.e. entitlement).
posted by dw at 2:32 PM on October 5, 2007

Yes, I know that, but I'm wondering how it entered into this particular context (i.e. entitlement).

Definitely through Fight Club.
posted by occhiblu at 2:43 PM on October 5, 2007

Well, I don't know about "entitlement," exactly, but there's always this highly relevant Dial-a-Prayer recording I made in 1991 which definitely riffs on the "you are a snowflake" concept.
posted by mykescipark at 2:43 PM on October 5, 2007

Popularised by Fight Club. The delivery of it in the film is very memorable.
posted by fire&wings at 2:44 PM on October 5, 2007

Best answer: I'm wondering how it entered into this particular context (i.e. entitlement).

Ah. Well, the entitlement connection most likely comes from the backlash against the kind of schooling that my generation (Gen Y, I guess) experienced, where we're all told that we're unique and special (just like snowflakes) and that our every dreams should and will come true, if we just work hard enough, because we're important and special. I'm pretty sure we were told things like that almost verbatim back in elementary school.

A lot of media commentary has been written about how Gen Y is interacting with workplaces differently because of this: how we're less patient with workplaces that don't completely accommodate us, because we're used to school systems and commerce systems and colleges that provide us with a near-infinite level of customization and choice in our curriculum, our purchases, our online interactions, etc. A higher degree of certification has become the norm, with most high school graduates expected to go to college, too, and "follow their dreams."

In college, you're expected to differentiate yourself even further, as you're thrown into this environment where you have no recourse but to preemptively define yourself in some way—as the "art kid" or the "hippie granola philosophy major." (These sound like stereotypes, but one of the biggest things I noticed when I went to college was that students self-stereotype and exaggerate their interests to sound like some kind of pop culture icon. And that makes sense—our generation was told to "be yourself" and you'll become famous. Just be yourself on a blog, or be yourself on The Real World, and the world's your oyster.)

The relevant reference here would be to Time magazine's 2006 Person of the Year: You, the issue that had a mirror printed on the cover. (Article here.)

This is thus a major theme in Fight Club—the novel is responding and riffing on, it seems, these trends in current culture. In addition to the snowflake quote, many additional references are made in Fight Club to this kind of customizable consumerism, this unprecedented access we all have to the things we want (and don't need). The narrator talks about reading the IKEA catalog in the bathroom and drooling over all his choices in conspicuous consumption—and then ultimately realizing how meaningless it all is, and blowing up his entire IKEA-filled apartment.
posted by limeonaire at 2:56 PM on October 5, 2007 [10 favorites]

I've only heard it -- aside from Fight Club -- in the context of parents demanding special service (medical treatment, etc.) for their children, not realizing that, while their child is special to them, it's no more special than any other kid to someone else: "Sorry, Mrs. Johnson, but your special little snowflake will have to wait behind all the others."
posted by Reggie Digest at 3:11 PM on October 5, 2007

This doesn't speak to the "snowflake" part, but I was reminded of this:

Miracle Of Birth Occurs For 83 Billionth Time
posted by Skot at 3:19 PM on October 5, 2007

It's a pretty popular thing to say: e x a m p l e s
posted by Reggie Digest at 3:19 PM on October 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, but those examples are all post-Fight Club...
posted by limeonaire at 3:31 PM on October 5, 2007

Wilson Bentley of Vermont spent his life studying snow and snowflakes, and proved their uniqueness.

I suspect that Bentley's article about his scientific observation was shortly followed by many sermons and inspirational articles that used the metaphors of uniqueness and beauty to apply to human individuals, which brought it into the popular discourse. There may be one specific article or sermon that made the connection first or most widely. This article may be it, the full article is behind the paywall.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:45 PM on October 5, 2007

limeonaire, that was a terrifically concise summary. Please go explain to my 23 year-old assistant why we would've gotten off to a better start if he'd worked for oh, a couple of months or so before telling me how simple everyone's jobs really are and how he'd prefer to format the date for business correspondence.
posted by desuetude at 3:55 PM on October 5, 2007

Best answer: It's a backlash against clichéd self-esteem boosters given out by teachers, e.g. 89 ways to say "You're Great" (which you can also get in sticker form).

Self-esteem became a buzzword more than 20 years ago, fueled by parenting experts, psychologists and educators. Believers suggested that students who hold themselves in high regard are happier and will succeed. That culture was so ingrained in parents that protecting their children from failure became a credo. This feel-good movement was most evident in California, which created a task force to increase self-esteem. -- USAToday

I found it as early as a 1966 education book, which said "A child can be compared with a snowflake, because each is a unique entity." In a 1983 teaching exercise book you get "Have children talk about the reality of such statements as these: 'Each snowflake is different (unique).'" In a 1983 book on Christian (!) schools, you have "As the final science project ... the teacher let students make their own fingerprints with an ink pad. 'No one has a pattern like anyone else,' she said. One pupil added, 'Snowflakes aren't the same either.' The teacher agreed ... and pointed out that God not only made every snowflake different but each person is unique, too."

And I remember at least one sitcom scene of the type where a cynical adult is forced to control a roomful of kids. Say, Murphy Brown, and she leans over at a brat with a squirtgun and says "You are a special snowflake." And he squirts her in the face.

There are connections to the twelve-step/recovery movement, e.g. this Hazelden reader of meditative texts: "If we look closely, we can see that each small snowflake is unique. Like the snowflakes, each of us has a unique design." I suspect this angle had particular influence on Pahlaniuk given the critique of the self-help movement in the book.

There are also feminist connections, including an oft-quoted passage in the important "Goddess-worship" book The Spiral Dance:
Mother Goddess is reawakening, and we can begin to recover our primal birthright, the sheer intoxicating joy of being alive. We can open new eyes and see that there is nothing to be saved “from”, no struggle of life “against” the universe, no God outside the world to be feared and obeyed; only the Goddess, the Mother, the turning spiral that whirls us in and out of existence, whose winking eye is the pulse of being – birth, death, rebirth – whose laughter bubbles and courses through all things and who is found only through love: Love of trees, of stones, of sky and clouds, of scented blossoms and thundering waves; of all that runs and flies and swims and crawls on her face; through love of ourselves; life-dissolving world-creating orgasmic love of each other, each of us unique and natural as a snowflake, each of us our own star, her Child, her lover, her beloved, her Self.

Now, the observation that each snowflake is unique dates back at least to the 19th century, and the metaphor about people (or other things, especially living) being unique seems to have come along well before the 1960s. But there's a particular strain of using the metaphor for promoting self-esteem that seems to be at issue here so I've focused on that.
posted by dhartung at 10:52 PM on October 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

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