Why “The New Black” Is More Irritating Than the Average Cliché

Yesterday, the Huffington Post ran a gallery of various pieces of culture with titles containing variations on the phrase “something is the new something else.” The post came apropos of Orange Is the New Black, and made the not-especially-earth-shattering observation that, hey, this “X is the new Y” formulation is everywhere these days. They’re right, though — it’s everywhere, and has been for at least the last decade or so. Enough! It needs to stop.

“X is the new black” is a cliché, obviously — a phrase that’s taken on a life of its own and become so ubiquitous that just hearing it makes you want to beat yourself around the head with a jagged brickbat. But it’s a special sort of cliché, one of sentence construction rather than just vocabulary. You tend to see a lot of these around in 2013: “My other X is a Y,” “have X will travel,” “X Y is X.” There’s even a word for these clichés — they’re called snowclones, a neologism coined in 2004 by linguist Geoffrey Pullum. “The new black” is one of the oldest, dating from the 1980s, but most of them have evolved on and exist by virtue of that great institution of endless self-referentialism: the Internet.

In this respect, you can see them as the meme-ification of language — the reduction of discourse to a series of soundbites and in-jokes, in the same way we discussed here at Flavorwire a couple of weeks back in regard to politics. And just like political reductivism tends to devolve political discourse into an entirely superficial and infantile process, so too do clichés rob language of its depth and complexity, reducing it to a series of superficial observations that really don’t tell you anything about their subject.

So it goes with most of the examples that the HuffPo cites, which range from the coherent, if wrongheaded (2011 documentary Different Is the New Normal), through the ridiculous (Janice Ian’s Folk Is the New Black) to the entirely nonsensical (Ben Lee’s Awake Is the New Sleep)*. In all these cases, the title tells you pretty much nothing about the contents of the culture to which they refer — beyond the fact, perhaps, that appreciating Ben Lee’s music is best done while anesthetized.

The one thing these constructions denote is that the author wants to signal to his audience that he’s down with hip language and with the stagnant pools of pop culture in which these uliginous constructions of language tend to flourish. Beyond that, their use only serves to obscure meaning, not aid it. If you tell me something is suddenly popular, you’re telling me that, well, it’s suddenly popular. If you tell me that it’s “the new black,” I have to try to parse what you’re on about through various filters. First I have to be aware of this particular cliché’s existence, or I’ll genuinely have no clue what you’re saying, and then I have to think: what’s this a reference to? And are you being serious or ironic? The answer to the latter question is probably yes, since a common characteristic of these catchphrases is that they privilege irony at the expense of meaning.

It’s fascinating, actually, to note that some of the Internet’s most ubiquitous snowclones have no meaning at all. Take “All your X are belong to us,” for instance — as any geek knows, it’s a reference to the badly translated intro to otherwise obscure 1991 video game Zero Wing, and became a Something Awful catchphrase that spread all around the Internet and subsequently into popular culture. But if you tell me “All your X are belong to us,” literally all you’re doing is signaling that you’re aware of the meme and have at least a cursory awareness of the culture that birthed it. Beyond that, the phrase tells me nothing. Nothing at all.

At some point in their college career, pretty much every student of writing gets instructed to read George Orwell’s excellent 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” wherein he warns of the dangers of “prose [that] consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

Snowclones are prime examples of “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” The danger, as Orwell correctly points out, is that “the whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness” — when you abuse language like this, you end up saying nothing at all. The title of Orange Is the New Black is a fine example of this, actually — it’s a jokey reference to the fact that it’s set in a prison, where inmates wear orange jumpsuits. (Never mind that most of the inmates on the show are actually uniformed in khaki.) But you need to know about the show to know this. Compare and contrast it to some far more effective titles, which tend to be either abstract but effective (Breaking Bad and Mad Men, for instance, both obscure phrases that nevertheless capture interest) or literal and matter-of-fact (Girls, New Girl, Freaks and Geeks, Community).

Orange Is the New Black satisfies neither of these criteria — it’s a stale cliché that tells you nothing about the show, and has probably done a decent job of turning at least some viewers off the idea of watching it. And as with all the “X Is the New Black” constructions, it’s a salutary example of what Orwell meant when he said “thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Or, more prosaically: enough of “the new black” and its ilk. If you have something to say, just fucking say it.

* I’m kinda impressed that they included Donnacha Costello’s 2001 ambient techno masterpiece Together Is the New Alone, mind you.