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First came John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation, which was later turned into a film. It was about the web of interconnections that binds all of humanity together.

Later came the well known trivia game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which does for actors what Guare's creation did for the rest of us. But lately more people understand the idea behind "Six Degrees of Separation" through the Kevin Bacon game. The game has supplanted the inspiration for it.

Now, it seems obvious to me (though I could be wrong), that Kevin Bacon was chosen at least in part because his name metrically and phonetically rhymes with "Separation" (at least the vowels do). "Six Degrees of Jack Nicholson" or "Six Degrees of Lord Laurence Olivier" wouldn't have scanned as well (or at all).

So here's my question: Is there a term that succinctly represents the transformation of a word or phrase through assonance or rhyme into another word or phrase of similar meaning, but in which the latter version becomes more well known than the original? Failing that, perhaps this falls under a larger category of word or phrase substitution. I've been trying to think of more examples, but I can't at the moment, though I am sure they exist.

N.B. I am not asking about any "real" reason Kevin Bacon was chosen, about the origin of the game, its history or rules or any of that. That information is covered extensively elsewhere. I'm only interested in the term for such a transformation, if one exists.

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It's somewhat similar to the Cockney rhyming slang word replacement mechanism. –  z7sg Ѫ Jun 12 '11 at 13:18
This reminds me of a commercial for Ally Bank. An interviewee says: "I really love my bank's Raise Your Rate CD.". The boss seems like he doesn't understand or put off by his comment, and asks: "You want a pay raise ASAP? ... You spent 8 days lost at sea? ... You love watching your neighbors watch TV?" Is this another example of what you are talking about? –  gbutters Jun 12 '11 at 13:57
We might coin a term for this, like "echoication." –  The Raven Jun 12 '11 at 14:04
@Robusto: can you give another example? That would help get closer. There may be no term for the exact concept, but more than one term might work, e.g. 'rhyming snowclone' or 'rhyming meme'. –  Mitch Jun 13 '11 at 14:12
@Robusto: you made the comment that Rhyming Slang "frequently" employs hemiteleia. This is completely wrong. Rhyming slang employs hemiteleia perhaps, oh, 20% of the time (if that). (Probably much less -- there are JUST A FEW common hemiteleia-esque rhyming slangs, ALL other rhyming slang has no connection to the hemiteleia process.) There seems to a lot of confusion about this question so we must reduce ancillary confusion! :) –  Joe Blow Jun 13 '11 at 16:27
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5 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Note: There is some contention as to the applicability of this answer. I am directly addressing this portion of the original question:

Is there a term that succinctly represents the transformation of a word or phrase through assonance or rhyme into another word or phrase of similar meaning, but in which the latter version becomes more well known than the original?

The best term I found was meme:

A meme is an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. While genes transmit biological information, memes are said to transmit ideas and belief information.

A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.

The key here is the mutation. In the case of your example, there is a rhyming/assonant mutation and Six Degrees of Separation became Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

There are plenty of other examples of meme evolution; many of them thrive in chain emails or on Facebook. The one example that really stuck with me, however, was the "25 Random Things About Me" chain that hit in 2009. The reason I remember it well was because of this article in Slate magazine that compared the fad to a virus:

Late last fall, a chain letter titled "16 Random Things About Me" began to chew its way through Facebook. [...] Then something curious happened: It mutated. Since everyone who participates is supposed to paste the original instructions into her own note, it's easy to tinker with the rules. Soon enough, 16 things (and 16 tagged friends) morphed into 15—and 17 and 22 and 35 and even 100. As the structure crumbled, more users toyed with the boundaries. Like any disease, "Random Things" was mutating in hopes of finding a strain that uniquely suited its host.

Studying the idea of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon outlasting its predecessor would fit the scope of measuring popularity and catchiness. Much like pictures of Keanu Reeves on a bench or Xzibit's goofy phraseology, concepts morph until they stick in the popular consciousness. Naturally, rhyming makes a logical next step in the evolution of a phrase. So would swapping out a generic word (separation) for a specific cultural, er, icon (Kevin Bacon).

Of note, Wikipedia even calls the it a meme:

Though [Bacon] was initially dismayed by the game, the meme stuck, and Bacon eventually embraced it.

While a more specific term may be found, meme certainly works as a backup umbrella term.

A more specific alternative: The Weird Al Effect

When a parody remains popular after the original works being parodied are no longer known to the audience.

Named for the fact that, when listening to the earlier work of "Weird Al" Yankovic, modern fans may be so unfamiliar with the songs being mocked as to not even realize that the Weird Al song is a parody. For example, many people are now more familiar with "I Lost on Jeopardy!" than with the original "Jeopardy" by the Greg Kihn Band.

This is, again, not a specific match based on rhyming but the idea of a variation becoming more popular than its original again matches. The effect also carries a heavy implication that the child term survives the parent term's fade into obscurity.

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+1: Not sure why this got downvotes. It's a reasoned, capable answer that cannot be judged "wrong" on the face of it. –  Robusto Jun 13 '11 at 11:09
@Robusto: Despite informed attempts at answers (like this one), somehow they're attracting downvotes. –  Mitch Jun 13 '11 at 13:01
@MrHen: I don't think meme is specific enough. It covers -any_ kind of transferable idea whether it has variables (replaceable parts or not), and is not particular to the phrasing of the idea. But as you implied, it certainly contains the includes the OP's concept. –  Mitch Jun 13 '11 at 13:33
"Meme" is completely incorrect! "Meme" is an extremely broad concept, that means nothing relevant in any way here. MrHen, I believe that explains the downvotes! –  Joe Blow Jun 13 '11 at 16:19
Agree with Joe Blow that this answer is far too general to be valid. This is like if someone asked what you call something used in a sentence to modify the action of a verb and somebody answered, "oh, that's a word". Well, yes, technically they gave an answer that's true in some sense, but it's still so far from useful as to not even be a responsive answer to the question. (Bonus points would definitely then be awarded for backing up the answer by reference to Wikipedia pages that confirm that "quickly" and "slowly" are, indeed, examples of words.) –  chaos Jun 14 '11 at 18:53
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Let me break down your questions

(1) Is there a term that succinctly represents the transformation of a word or phrase through assonance or rhyme into another word or phrase of similar meaning?

(2) As (1), but in which the latter version becomes more well known than the original?

(3) Failing that, perhaps this falls under a larger category of word or phrase substitution.

For (3) - it sure does, for example, in classical rhetoric the substitution as one of the four categories of change indeed recognizes various figures

  • it could be thought of as periphrasis or antonomasia; though in essence periphrasis is introduction of a name to take properties associated with person or thing behind the name and apply them to the subject, where in the given case it is only partially so

There is another explanation, the mechanism at hand is actually not substitution, but subtraction, more specifically omission, actually ellipsis from

Six degrees (of separation) of Kevin Bacon

or in another example, "Six degrees (of separation) of Obama." which seem the same in the actual meaning, but with "omission of a word or short phrase easily understood in context." - which is the exact definition of rhetorical ellipsis.

As for answer to (1) I believe that you are not precise enough (you say assonance or rhyme, but I believe that you actually include many other types of wordplay here, isn't it so?). If I am right in my assumption then call it wordplay; if I am not right please refine further what you mean.

Similarly unsatisfactory is my solution for (2): the popularity of a term is very hard to measure. You could do it for the terms with largely overlapping meanings (which is not the case here) by measuring frequency in certain corpus, or if a specific terms fall into categories of 'general knowledge' or 'general culture' while the other term does not, but I am not aware of any specific words other than: popularized/rare (and so on). Or maybe successor if you want to emphasize that the words came later (and it does imply that it overtook the phrase). But, these are trivial.

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@Unreason: Wordplay is possibly an adequate umbrella term, but I rejected it as being too general. I initially tried to think of this as anatomasia, but that seemed insufficient, since the proper-name substitution in that figure ordinarily reflects the quality of the proper name as being meaningful to some degree. To call someone who sells out his country a "quisling" is an example of that, because Quisling was a traitor. But Kevin Bacon is not a type of separation. +1 nevertheless for a thoughtful response. –  Robusto Jun 14 '11 at 15:45
@Robusto, 1) I would argue that some quality of Kevin Bacon is reflected (his prolific screen career) in the usage. You start with the term of "degrees of separation" and you apply Kevin Bacon to infer a more specific meaning in context of movie industry. It is not specific enough as in "there is much of Cicero in this letter", where Cicero stands, completely and interchangeably, for eloquence, but I believe that the same principle is at work here (plus ellipsis). –  Unreason Jun 14 '11 at 16:20
2) Regarding the wordplay - my main point here is that you are not specific enough (and that specification "latter version becomes more well known than the original" actually obfuscates the issue). –  Unreason Jun 14 '11 at 16:24
I really don't mind down-votes with an explanation - that is an opportunity to learn. –  Unreason Jun 14 '11 at 22:00
@Unreason: You mean "antonomasia". –  CesarGon Jun 26 '11 at 1:27
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I realize this isn't a linguistic term, but out here on the street we would just call it a word play.*

The name of the game is a play on words.

*Then we laugh and say, "did you see what I did there"? :)

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Note: This answer isn't intended to qualify me for linguestic expertise (or bounties). Not everything in the world has a perfect word to describe it and I was only to throwing out the most usable moniker that comes to mind "for the rest of us". –  Caleb Jul 2 '11 at 14:19
@Ham Give it to @Unreason or @MrHen who actually did research to identify this. –  Caleb Jul 2 '11 at 14:34
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The term for this concept is:


It refers to any kind of syntactic pattern where one can produce new variations by substituting new parts. For example,

X is the new Y

Which means that Y is the traditional way of doing something but has been superseded by X, as n "Purple is the new Red" for the trend in marking mistakes in grading with colors. Or

the X have Y words for Z

Meaning a particular language has a large vocabulary for a certain concept because their culture needs it (Eskimos and snow, or the English and being drunk).

The pattern can be used humorously, ironically or earnestly, with wordplay or not. And can be produced by alliteration or assonance. Those are all additional strategies for making the particular instance of the pattern memorable.

(the term 'snowclone' is a neologism by the Language Log people, like 'eggcorn' and 'mondegreen')

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Does it count as a snowclone if there's only one? I've heard dozens of variations on "X is the new Y", but for "six degrees of X", there's only "separation" and "Kevin Bacon". Of course, we could (as the appellate court would say) dismiss this question for mootness if you can come up with another "six degrees of"... –  Malvolio Jun 12 '11 at 18:08
This is a possibility. It does fit the pattern in spirit, even if the "Six Degrees" variation turns out to be a singleton. –  Robusto Jun 12 '11 at 20:37
The concept of a snowclone doesn't relate to the rhyme/scansion relationship at all, and that seemed a significant part of the question. –  chaos Jun 13 '11 at 0:49
@Robusto: I don't think snowclone really captures your idea the best. You really need to have some clever word play too (rhyming/punning/something). And the example really doesn't have a productive variable to replace (like in my examples). Then again, one could say "six degrees of Obama" for political connections, or "six degrees of Erdos" for mathematics (but we'd be missing the clever wordplay). –  Mitch Jun 13 '11 at 13:42
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It's strange that this question is causing so much confusion and discussion.

Quite simply, the phrase is: a parody of rhyming slang.

At the same time, it is a mockery of snowclones.

Regarding (A) - if it needs to be spelled out! - obviously note that the reason it is funny is that the word "Bacon" (the meat) is precisely the type of Victorian-era word that would feature in rhyming slang, however, Victorian rhyming slang would never involve "the name of a hip 21st century actor." Thus, the ingenious two-layer humour.

Regarding (B), snowclones always make perfect sense. For example, from the snowclone base "Have gun, will travel" snowclones like "Have mistress, will travel" or "Have spaceship, will travel" make perfect sense and are, simply, literal. In contrast, "SDOKB" is meaningless and nonsensical.

Thus again, quite simply the phrase is an ingenious twist on rhyming slang and at the same time something of a mockery of snowclones.

It's not complicated.

For example, if I happened to be referring to the phrase SDOKB in an article, I would simply write, for example ... "John Smith, who coined the clever parody of rhyming slang, 'SDOKB,' has this to say about dadaism..."

Easy as pie. The phrase is a parody of rhyming slang. (And a mockery of snowclones.)

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I don't see any parody or mockery in the term "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." Nor do I see word bacon as very relevant here. The source of Kevin Bacon as a replacement of Separation is explained well at the Wikipedia article and doesn't mention anything related twisting rhyming slangs or mocking snowclones. –  MrHen Jun 13 '11 at 17:53
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