What does the term snowflake mean and why is it used?

Merriam-Webster dictionary says ‘snowflake’ was used by abolitionists in Missouri in the 1860s to refer to those who opposed the abolition of slavery

Sophie Gallagher
Tuesday 06 October 2020 09:23 BST
(Getty Images)

On Christmas Eve 2019 the Donald Trump campaign launched a website called snowflakevictory.com to give guidance to Trump’s supporters about how to deal with their “liberal relatives” over the holiday period. It featured 12 hot-button topics (immigration, impeachment, the environment) and witty comebacks to frequently-cited Democrat arguments.

For someone reading that URL the year before, it might have seemed odd to include a weather reference. But in the 12 months preceding the website, snowflake entered the general lexicon as the epitome of Trump’s opposition. Used to mean everything from weak and wet, to a synonym for the millennial age bracket, snowflake had become a political buzzword.

Piers Morgan adopted the word on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, using it to describe people who don’t like hot weather, and anyone who disagreed that 2019 was a great year. He tweeted: “I keep telling anxiety-ridden snowflakes, we’ve never had it so good… so I hope 2020 is the year we start dwelling on the many positive of modern life rather than the negatives [sic].

Later the tables turned and The Chase star Mark Labbett used the term to insult Piers Morgan when he went on the gameshow, saying “you absolutely crack like the snowflake you are!” So is it just a joking insult or is it a term with power? This is what snowflake means and where it came from in the first place.

What does snowflake mean?

The term snowflake is used in reference to individuals who deem themselves unique or special (the characteristics of a snowflake in nature are unique) and therefore deserving of recognition or special treatment. It also carries a connotation of being inherently wet and fragile.

The term was Collins English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016 and takes the definition further, to make explicit reference to an age group, saying: “The young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations.”

According to Urban Dictionary a snowflake is: “A very sensitive person. Someone who is easily hurt or offended by the statements or actions of others.”

It continues by saying that actually the term has “nothing to do with politics” and snowflakes can be liberal or conservative in their views - but usage would show that it is a term far more readily employed by the right to describe the left, than the other way round.

“Whether it is a compliment or an insult is a matter of opinion and depends on the context,” it adds.

Where did it come from?

Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 book Fight Club has been credited with coining the phrase snowflake, with the phrase: "you are not special, you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake". The 1999 film adaptation also includes this line. But the Merriam-Webster dictionary, says the term goes back much further than the nineties.

In the 1860s, Merriam-Webster says "snowflake" was used by abolitionists in Missouri to refer to those who opposed the abolition of slavery. The term referred to the color of snow, referring to valuing white people over black people. This usage was not believed to have extended beyond the state of Missouri in the 1800s.

Today the phrase is politicised - particularly following the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump to the White House.

Claire Fox’s 2016 book I Find That Offensive! helped to solidify the term in academic circles. The study was based on a disagreement between students and teachers at Yale University over Halloween costumes that were accused of cultural appropriation, and whether the teachers should intervene to stop them being worn.

Fox argued that parenting methods of the eighties, nineties and later, led to the creation of a generation who do not have resilience to being told no, or being unsuccessful.

Despite Urban Dictionary’s comment that the word can be used to describe someone of any political persuasion, the term has become more politicised with it being used most regularly as an insult by the right towards the left.

The term is only used in reference to those on the right in retort, for example, a January 2017 piece on The Guardian referred to Trump as the “Snowflake in Chief” in response to his frequent deployment of the word, yet seemingly easy offence at anyone disliking him.

It said: “It’s ironic that the alt-right’s insult of the moment applies above all to their hero, president-elect Donald Trump.”

Some have tried to wear the name as a badge of honour. Actor George Takei said: "The thing about 'snowflakes' is this: They are beautiful and unique, but in large numbers become an unstoppable avalanche that will bury you."

Where else have we seen snowflake used?

In 2017, a US marketing company created a "snowflake test" to be used in its hiring process to "weed out overly sensitive, liberal candidates who are too easily offended".

Many questions were designed to assess a candidate’s stance on the police, and guns, including questions such as “When was the last time you cried?” and “What does America mean to you?”

In keeping with the idea that it is a term used more to describe liberals by conservatives, Kyle Reyes who created the test said anyone who didn’t support the right to bear arms would be discounted. As would anyone who was not proud to be an American.

The same year, Saturday Night Live (SNL), the American live sketch comedy show aired a skit about a Trump-loving dog that was able to berate the anti-Trump humans in the room as "liberal snowflakes".

The term snowflake is also often used in response to asking for trigger warnings or demands for safe spaces, as well as high profile examples of deplatforming.

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