Between the lines

Where did the term snowflake come from?

The term is often said to derive from the 1996 cult book Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

The term “snowflake” is a relatively new word in our current political lexicon, although it is now frequently used as a bitter accusation across the political spectrum on social media.

Used as a derogatory term for a person deemed to be fragile or easily offended, the insult refers to the unique physical qualities of snowflakes, implying that the object of the insult is both similarly fragile and has an unwarranted belief in their own individuality. 

What are the origins of the term?

When the term entered the Collins English Dictionary as a word of the year in 2016, it didn’t have as strident political overtones as it does today.

Instead, snowflake was associated with university-aged young people and their perceived tendency towards taking offence. The Collins English Dictionary defined the term as meaning: “The young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations.”

The term emerged first in American campuses a few years prior to 2016 as a “means of criticising the hypersensitivity of a younger generation, where it was tangled up in the debate over safe spaces and no platforming”, said Rebecca Nicholson in The Guardian.

This use of the term snowflake for young, overly sensitive and even fragile millennial adults likely has its origins in Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 cult book Fight Club, said US dictionary Merriam-Webster, where one zealous member of Tyler Durden’s violent club tells the other members: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”

But the term was also used long before then, said the dictionary site, in the 1970s as “a disparaging term for a white man or for a black man who was seen as acting white” as well as a “slang term for cocaine”.

In 1860s Missouri, the term was also used by abolitionists to describe people who were opposed to the abolition of slavery, “the implication of the name being that such people valued white people over black people”.

But the available evidence suggests that this use of the term seems never to have “moved much beyond the borders of Missouri or the era”.

Entrance into the mainstream

The term solidified as a politically charged insult around 2016.

In the run-up to the US elections, which saw Donald Trump elected as president, it was a term “lobbed especially fiercely by those on the right side of the political spectrum at those on the left,” said Merriam-Webster.

It was leapt upon by far-right sites like Breitbart, fervent supporters of Trump’s presidential bid, and was then more specifically used to “denote enemies of Donald Trump”, said Hannah Jewell, author of We Need Snowflakes, told BBC Radio 4. 

In the UK, the term entered “more mainstream discourse” around the time of the Brexit referendum, said Jewell, where it was used to “denote young people who are very upset about the result” of the vote, which ultimately lead to the UK officially leaving the bloc in 2020. 

The Sun said that the term became popular “when some older generations scoffed at young people’s ‘hysterical’ reaction to the EU referendum result”.

In the UK, the term was bolstered by the publication of the book I Find That Offensive, written by Claire Fox, the director of the think tank Institute for Ideas. She coined the term “generation snowflake” – now frequently used by tabloid newspapers – which examines how the parenting methods of the 1980s and 1990s created a generation of young people she called “easily offended and thin-skinned”.

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