In 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary — for nearly 150 years the principal historical dictionary of the English language — added more than 1,000 new words. Among them was “snowflake”, which the keen-eyed among you will realize predates 2018 by a considerable margin.
And so it does, as a descriptor of what falls from the sky in winter. However, words often take on new meaning over time, and so it is with snowflake. Drawing on the fact that no two snowflakes are alike, the word came to mean a unique person. Then it took on yet another meaning, and now is commonly used as an insult, referring to someone who is overly sensitive or thinks that they are special, and that they and their needs should be the centre of attention wherever they go.
It was this meaning of “snowflake” that made its way into the OED in 2018, not long after it became prevalent. It is often levelled at younger people by older ones, implying that today’s youth and young adults are far more delicate and fragile than their hearty elders, who trudged six miles to school (and back), in a snow drift, uphill, every day and never once breathed a word of complaint.
I was therefore rather interested to read, in the June 19, 1947 issue of the Ashcroft Journal, a short piece noting that “You can’t have everything your own way … Growing children need to be taught that they aren’t the only ‘pebbles on the beach’, and can’t expect to hold life’s spotlight all the time.”
There is no context for the piece; nothing to indicate what prompted the observation. However, it does seem to show that “snowflakes” (to use the term in the pejorative sense) have been with us for some time, and are not a purely 21st century phenomenon. That’s not exactly a “stop the presses” revelation: human nature hasn’t changed a lot since recorded history began, if the ancient Greeks are to be believed. The world changes; human beings, not so much.
It’s frustrating, though, to see younger folks continually disparaged by their elders, and their worries and fears pooh-poohed. Take housing, for example. I guarantee you that the comments section of any article about the housing woes of young adults will be filled with huffy posts from older folks talking about how in their day, they were making $3.85 an hour and still managed to buy a four-bedroom, single-family house by dint of scrimping and saving for a few years. “We didn’t expect everything handed to us, no sirree! We went without until we’d saved enough!! What’s wrong with young people today?”
I have before me an ad from 1963 for a single family detached home at Finch and Leslie in Greater Toronto, advertised at $16,745. Minimum wage for men in Ontario in 1963 was $1 an hour (women got 85 cents), meaning that, based on a 40-hour work week, it would take 1.61 years of a man’s wages to afford a 20 per cent downpayment, and eight years of his wages to purchase the house outright.
Fast-forward to 2022, where the minimum wage in Ontario (for men and women) is $15.50 an hour. Wow: those older folks are right! What are young people today complaining about? Hold your horses. Single family detached homes at Finch and Leslie are now selling (as of June 12; I checked) for between $1.368 million and $1.688 million. If you take a median price of $1.5 million, someone on minimum wage would need to devotes 9.3 years’-worth of salary to afford a 20 per cent downpayment, and a whopping 46.5 years’-worth of salary to purchase it outright.
So next time you hear someone disparaging the younger generation for what they see as entitlement, or whining, or complaining about the way things are today, tell them (politely) to put a sock in it. And please, reserve the word snowflake for the fluffy white things that cling to your nose and eyelashes, no matter what the OED tells you.