The thing about ‘snowflakes’ is this: They are beautiful and unique, but in large numbers become an unstoppable avalanche that will bury you.
► George Takei, actor1
Another insult term found in some conservative and most alt-right circles,2 but, more than most, making a particular point that ought to be more generally addressed and considered.
The political term comes from the sort-of scientific one, the crystalline singularity of a piece of snow; it draws off some of the flake’s more obvious qualities, such as its fragility and delicacy, the unique structure of each, and (less often but occasionally) its whiteness.
The recent3 political use of it may have its unlikely origins in the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk; its most famous quote may be the one about not talking about Fight Club, but another had more political import: “You are not special, you are not the beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” The use of the terms seized on the idea of self-important people who, perceiving themselves as “special,” demand either various entitlements or extra praise or consideration.
The term began to take off after a 2015 YouTube video of a shouting match between students and faculty at Yale University went viral; the students were widely slapped with the label of “snowflake generation.” That phrase became a “word of the year” the next year for Collins Dictionary, but it was soon shortened to the more generic snowflake.
In keeping with the shorter usage, the meaning was broadened at bit; Urban Dictionary in 2016 had, “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.”4
As that might suggest, the term has been flung more by the right at the left than the other way around. Examples: “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.”5
Of course, this does nothing to say whether these things upsetting a person ought to be upsetting; it makes no argument for any of them. It’s an ad hominem attack, of a simplistic kind.
Of course, the word can as easily be sent in the other direction: “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.”6
There is one other aspect to this that should be mentioned. In fact – in reality – we are all different, unique, with particular qualities to offer. Or at least we’d better be. If we’re nothing more than “you are the same decaying organic matter as everything else,” then what gives any person the right to fling a snowflake at anyone else? Or is the flinger simply another snowflake who can’t handle the world as it is?
2A 2016 Los Angeles Times article compiled a list of them, including beta (in contrast to alpha), crybaby (not really new, but with juvenile connotations), cuck (see that entry), human biodiversity, libtard, masculinist (in opposition to feminist), and SJW for social justice warrior. https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-alt-right-terminology-20161115-story.html. More materialize regularly, some more very specific uses; Goolag is used as a criticism of Google; femoid, intended to suggest women are less than human; and GEOTUS, “God-Emperor of the United States,” intended to refer to Donald Trump (usually intended positively). See more at https://qz.com/1092037/the-alt-right-is-creating-its-own-dialect-heres-a-complete-guide/.
3Merriam-Webster cites a regional Civil War-era use: “In Missouri in the early 1860s, a ‘Snowflake’ was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery – the implication of the name being that such people valued white people over black people.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-less-lovely-side-of-snowflake