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Snowflake: the surprising history behind the decade’s “iciest” insult

‘Snowflake’; You’ve heard it weaponised, you’ve seen it misused, and it’s now at the point where it’s confusing the fuck out of everybody.

Today we’re talking about the surprising history of the insult ‘snowflake’. Why? Because a lot of things don’t make sense anymore. It’s hard to keep up; so many things change all of the time – especially language.

But like a snake eating its ass, the one thing that’s especially confusing is when triggered people exhaust themselves telling other triggered snowflakes to stop exhausting themselves being triggered. The internet is a breeding zone for snowflake circle jerks, so who is the actual snowflake? And where did this ridiculously cute but somehow brutal insult come from?

‘Snowflake’ was the defining politicised insult of 2016. Self-delusional, coddled, easily-offended, lefty millennials copped it the most. Eventually, it was thrown against any crybaby that didn’t fit the mould of a conservative with a fear of words and people whose opinion differs from theirs.

Against Brexit? Snowflake. Anti-Trump? Precious snowflake. Show empathy online? Special snowflake. Request a safe space? Classic generational snowflake.

So all of this and then some prompted me to research the etymology of the word to untwist this clusterfuck.

Fight Club made the ‘snowflake’ insult popular in the modern world in 1999, but before that (and here’s the huge reveal), it was a term used over a century earlier against pro-slavery racists in the 1860s during the Civil War in Missouri.

That’s right – enslavers who opposed the abolition of slavery were the first snowflakes.

They were called ‘snowflakes’ because, according to Emily Brewster, lexicographer and associate editor at Merriam-Webster, they “valued white people over Black people”. And the ‘charcoals’ were the progressives, fighting for emancipation and also pushing for Black people to be able to enlist in the armed forces. Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product and legacy of slavery.

The only insult close to ‘snowflake’ was ‘snowball’, a word used against Black people as far back as the 1780s, which was seen as a “let’s call this person something white, because it’s funny” zinger. Very clever.

There is also a disturbing rumour that the word ‘snowflake’ was used by Nazi soldiers to refer to their victim’s ashes, but to this day there is no record of that, even by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. However, if this is remotely true, that’s been reason enough to stop using the word altogether for some people.

Lefties watching this might be thinking ‘sucked in conservatives! It was our word against you, first!’ According to the etymology behind the word, yes, sucked in. But ultimately, does the eye-for-an-eye mentality ever work in these online wars?

I think this quote from author and language expert Ben Yagoda sums all of this up quite nicely:

“… I think, deep down, everybody is a snowflake. 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.”

Needless to say, a lot of other words in the world have taken on new meanings. To stick to the theme here, ‘troll’ once meant to ‘go about’ in the 14th century, to eventually mean ‘fish with a moving line’, then a Scandanavian mythical monster in the 1610s, and continued evolving to mean ‘troublesome imp who recklessly bullies people online’.

trump campaign snowflake victory

But no other word has really been politicised quite as much as ‘snowflake’, and those who use it against people are often self-proclaimed historians who only seek the truth.

I reckon that if we were to amass all the energy people put into those circle jerk conversations, we could maybe put out the fire in the ocean or, I don’t know, become the politicians we complain about not having.

So what should you do if you get called one? Depends on your energy levels, of course. But perhaps explain the irony behind the insult and choose your online battles, including your language, wisely.