Etymology: What is This * You Speak Of?

by Devanshu Mehta

_aka What is this * of which you speak?_

For many months or years or decades- I am not sure- I have used to the phrase “What is this * you speak of?” to great humorous (my opinion) effect. It has usually been greeted with chuckles and makes me feel all warm and superior on the inside.

Maybe you don’t understand the context in which you would use this phrase; let me illustrate. Let us say people are talking about the NSA wiretaps. Someone says that they think it might be legal to which someone else replies that it is not in-keeping with the constitution. At this point, I will interject with the classic line, “Constitution? What is this constitution you speak of?” and will be treated by chuckles all around. If you don’t get the joke- and I’m sure it loses some luster in written text- it means that people at the NSA or in government seem to not be aware of the existence of the constitution. Ha ha, funny, right?

Maybe not. I like to make myself laugh more than I do others, so I succeed. It is a low bar I set for myself.

The trouble, however, is that I do not like to use lines without knowing their roots. Where does this phrase come from? Surely, it is not my own creation- though I may admit as much in lesser company- so where does it come from? I hate using quotes or phrases that are in common use without knowing the source- you know those people who spout lines from Monty Python or SNL or Abe Lincoln without knowing where they came from? They irritate me. So what are the origins of my pet line? Off to the all-knowing search engines for that answer…

First of all, I discovered (via LanguageLog) that lines like this one are known as “snowclones”:

Snowclone is a neologism used to describe a type of formula-based cliche which uses an old idiom in a new context. The term emphasizes the use of a familiar (and often particular) formula and previous cultural knowledge of the reader to express information about an idea. The idea being discussed is usually contextually different in meaning from the original use of that formula, but can be understood using the same trope as the original formula was used. “Snowclone” has been described as an internet meme due to its frequent use on blogs which are critical of journalism.

Examples (from Wikipedia):
# In space, no one can hear you X. (Original X: “scream”; from tagline for Alien)
# All your X are belong to us. (Original X: “base”; from All your base Internet meme)
# Have X, will travel. (Original X: “gun”; from title of old US TV western Have Gun, Will Travel)
# To X, or not to X? (Original X: “be”; from Hamlet)
# X considered harmful. (Original X: “Go To Statement”; from title of computer science article by Edsger Dijkstra)
# Will X for Y. (Original X: “work”; Original Y: “food”)

Nice. So what of my favorite line? According to this “article on Language Log”: the first occurrence on Usenet was regarding toilet paper. That is, _What is this toilet paper you speak of?_ Also, according to the same article, the origin seems to be a created collective memory of 50s era sci fi novels where aliens, who were clearly alien to our world, would make remarks like _”What is this love of which you speak? Where can I find it?”_ and so on. Such lines may not actually have been written, but there is a collective idea that they did all the time. Similar ideas can be found in other _stranger in a strange land_ type situations.

Another article later on “Language Log”: explores the moment at which the phrase may have exploded in popular use and comes up with this exchange from _The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy_:

“Look, sorry, are we talking about the little white furry things with the cheese fixation and women standing on tables screaming in early sixties sitcoms?”

Slartibartfast coughed politely.

“Earthman,” he said, “it is sometimes hard to follow your mode of speech. Remember I have been asleep inside this planet of Magrathea for five million years and know little of these early sixties sitcoms of which you speak.”

That may actually be one of the major introductions of the phrase in to my vocabulary, as that set of books is one of my all time favorites and I have read them many times. Of course, Language Log goes on to list sources in history as far back as the 18th century.

Another interesting article on the subject comes from “”: where a commenter brings up another obscure reference in the 20th century.

My search for that root over, I can go back to amusing myself. What is this amusement you speak of? Where can I find it?

Also: If you like snowclones, you might like eggcorns, another similar interesting pop-spin on language!