There are a number of compounds in English of the form "noun wars," e.g. "Star Wars," "mommy wars," "culture wars." Why do these show "wars" in the plural? It seems like normally "wars" would pertain to a sequence of conflicts with more or less well-defined endpoints, whereas these phrases actually describe conflicts that have been going on more or less continually (I'd hesitate to say the conflicts are unitary since at least the latter two are quite complex and multifaceted phenomena; but then again actual armed conflicts are often complicated too).

I wonder if this is perhaps a snowclone; if so, what would the original member of the set be?

  • It just occurs to me the "Star Wars" series itself contained another example: the Clone Wars. I don't remember the prequels enough to know if there were multiple separate wars, but the Wikipedia page seems to suggest not. – echristopherson Mar 29 '14 at 22:12
  • I think this may well be a snowclone: with one exception, all the examples I can think of are either science fictional, or metaphorical. The exception is "The Wars of the Roses". – Colin Fine Mar 30 '14 at 0:27
  • Also the Balkan Wars. – Peter Shor Mar 30 '14 at 2:24
  • 1
    But didn't the Balkan wars involve multiple conflicts (Serbia vs. Kosovo / Serbia vs. Bosnia / Bosnia vs. Kosovo / etc)? – virmaior Mar 30 '14 at 2:27
  • I'd say the opposite: that the plural (as in the expression "back from the wars") suggests a repeated or ongoing state of conflict, especially one unlikely to resolve, whereas calling it "the mommy war" or "the culture war" would suggest a finite, well-defined struggle with an eventual winner and loser. – downwitch Mar 30 '14 at 4:40

It seems like normally "wars" would pertain to a sequence of conflicts with more or less well-defined endpoints

Why so? We find, for example, theRoman-Etruscan WarsandThe Wars of the Roses, yet thosewarshad no clearly defined endpoints. There were generally no official peace treaties designating the end of those conflicts - they raged on for a certain period, and were then resolved, for whatever reason.

The simple answer to your question is that since theculture warsorthe browser warsare compromised of numerous points of conflict within a fairly discreet period of time, they are referred to aswars. There is no specific endpoint to the individual conflicts, but they are, at large, confined to a particular era, and in a sense characterize that era, because of their scope, and the public's awareness of them.

So, in such context, the use of wars is used to designated a group of related, well known and important conflicts that occur within a fairly discreet period of time. Although each individual conflict might have no specific endpoint, the era characterizing such conflicts does. The culture wars are still being fought, but at some point in the future, they will end, and humanity will move on to otherwars. Thebrowser warsended some years ago. No clear victor emerged and no peace treaty was signed, but no one is really fighting those battles orwars any more. When exactly didthe browser wars end? Hard to say. But it's clear that today they are over, and we have entered a new period - that ofthe Tablet Wars.


I think the use of the plural is to make the term less specific. To use the singular, there must be a particular identifiable conflict. By using the plural the reader will think about the conflict only in generalities.

One does not refer to the "cold wars" but rather to the singular Cold War, even though it was not actually a war and did not have a precisely defined beginning and end. The Vietnam War had a precisely defined ending, but the specific beginning date is a bit fuzzy. But in each case it's immediately clear which conflict is being described.

When referred to as the noun wars, the noun in question describes what the conflict is about, whereas when a particular conflict is described the name usually describes who was fighting or where the conflict occurred. Sometimes you can even describe the same conflict in both ways. One could refer specifically to Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but in another context, one might refer to them as "oil wars."

The Wars of the Roses (or Balkan Wars, World Wars, etc.) are a different situation. In these cases there are actually a group of related but well-defined conflicts. Today the Wars of the Roses tend to be referred to most often in the plural because, outside of historians studying them in detail, the individual conflicts making them up are rarely significant.

Because this use of the plural to denote lack of specificity appears elsewhere in the language, I don't consider it a snowclone, although I wouldn't be surprised if it's more common post-Star Wars. The oldest example that comes to mind are the "sheep wars" which occurred in the 19th century, but I doubt this was the first example.


This is a "copywriter's usage". You know how in the US, for the super bowl (and also, say, The Simpsons seasons) .. roman numerals are used. It's always Super Bowl XXIII rather than Super Bowl 23. If you buy the DVD box set it's Simpsons IX rather than just Simpson 9.

You may ask -- why is that?

Quite simply, it sounds dramatic - a touch archaic

It's that simple. Using the roman numerals looks/sounds dramatic, archaic - it hints of a sort of scholarly importance, not unlike when an academic uses latin names, article references or the like.

So, quite simply, when people started talking about the browser war. (You can and do see "browser war" as well as "browser wars.") Some joker (a copywriter, or TV writer) was making a CNBC Original Series doco. on said commercial conflict. And, quite simply s/he decided that "Browser Wars" sounded more dramatic/funnier/whatever than just "the browser war."

(Indeed, that's precisely what Geo. Lucas did to tremendous effect in the title. It gives an archaic, dramatic, ye-olde-history-like feel to it -- it's so clever.)

{Imagine if the film had been called just "Galactic War." or "The Jedi War." Those just sounds like an ordinary action movie, about some action. No gravitas; no story-telling feel; no sweep-of-history feel.}

Indeed, there are any number of (cheesey) uses of the form in say advertising ("Winning the toilet-cleaner wars!!" sort of thing.)

Regarding the origin of the usage. It's a great question and I don't know.

Taking a wild guess, in Victorian times ("it sounds Victorian to me" -- I know you come to this site for hard evidence right? :) ) someone probably started referring to some messy ongoing set of wars with the plural. (As in "balkan wars".)

So I don't know the earliest usage; hopefully someone does.

But yeah, today in the USA it's one of those things "Like Roman Numerals" (or perhaps "using latin-esque naming"). You choose it because it lends a vaguely archaic sort of dramatic, story-telling-esque (or indeed, just humorous) air.

Star Wars is the ultimate (classy) example of this. As a cheesy usage, you can see it everywhere ("Basketball Wars! We take on East High tomorrow night!")

Regarding "is it a snowclone"? I urge you to set this question aside, because quite simply, the exact, absolutely precise, meaning of snowclone (or the earlier "catch structure", etc etc) is unknown. (For example, say someone was discussing what IS the meaning of snowclone: the sort of thing they'd discuss is whether the "_ _ _ Wars" format fits in to that meaning. So it's pointless us asking here, is it a snowclone.) If you want to assert that it's a snowclone - hell, you could assert it's the best and most primary example of a snowclone (given that Star Wars is a fundamental cultural artifact of the era) - if you wanted to.

Again the earliest use of the form is a great question - hopefully someone knows.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.