"Devastated by Brexit? Protesting the election of Donald J. Trump? Asking to take down a statue of a racist on your campus? Sexual assault survivors requesting trigger warnings on texts that include graphic rape scenes?"

Society has deemed people falling into these categories as snowflakes (politically), one of Collins Dictionary's 10 words of 2016 and the defining insult of 2016 according to The Guardian.

From my research, there are multiple types of political snowflakes, including:

What I am curious of is not only the history of the word, but also how it has traveled in the last 150 years.

According to Emily Brewster at Merriam-Webster:

"In Missouri in the early 1860s, a "snowflake" was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery—the implication of the name being that such people valued white people over black people. The snowflakes hoped slavery would survive the country's civil war, and were contrasted with two other groups. The Claybanks (whose name came from the colorless color of the local terrestrial clay) wanted a gradual transition out of slavery for slaves, with eventual freedom accompanied by compensation to slave owners; the Charcoals—who were also called Brown Radicals—wanted immediate emancipation and for black people to be able to enlist in the armed forces."

In the 1970s, according to Green's Dictionary of Slang, the word appeared to rear its head again. This time, it was used to describe either a white person (regardless of personality) or a black person who imitates a white person.

The earliest documented appearance of the currently used definition that I can find was in the 1996 and 1999 Fight Club (video) films:

"You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world."

Did something cause the word to change focus of meaning from race-centered to personality-centered? Was it really sparked by Fight Club or are the two usages completely unrelated?

(Note: This is not a political discussion so please keep all comments and answers about the word history and usage, not political views. All political posts will be flagged for deletion.)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 19:43

1 Answer 1


My guess would be that the two uses are completely unrelated, and snowflakes are simply such a common phenomenon that they're bound to enter vocabulary.

At least in the U.S., the personality implications of the word snowflake are pretty clear. Little kids are taught that they and their classmates are like snowflakes; that they all seem very similar from a distance, but each one is special, unique, and beautiful. Because, interestingly enough, it turns out that actual snowflakes do tend to differ significantly in their crystalline structure. There may have also been a component of "delicate" to the metaphor, but since it's been a little over a decade and a half since I last ran across this metaphor in gradeschool, I can't speak to that.

The insult, of course, comes from a few different angles. Off the top of my head:

  • You're belittling your opponent by referring to them in terms usually reserved for insecure children.
  • You're implying that they've internalized that metaphor a little too well as it applies to them, and have reached the conclusion that they're so very special the world should revolve around them.

Most importantly, none of the angles require any reference to race. They work without that assumption.

The snowflake metaphor taught to children derives directly from the actual observable physical properties of snowflakes, so Occam's Razor says that, in the absence of other evidence connecting the two definitions, they must be assumed to be unrelated since that's the simpler option.

As such, until I'm presented with some convincing evidence that the two are connected at all, I will continue to assume they are completely unrelated.

  • +1 for a good, solid answer. This is my assumption also, and it doesn't appear that anyone has evidence that they are connected at all. We shall see!
    – Hank
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 21:04
  • I agree with your answer and description but am not convinced by your reasoning using Occam's razor. Please see commentary on the related chat (linked in comment to OP)
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 15:47

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