Going Forward, Part 2

I’m not against cliches. Not all of them, not all the time. After all, usually, there’s a reason a phrase becomes a cliche: It works. “Ballpark figure.” “Jump the gun.” “Whole hog.” “Man’s best friend.” These all came from somewhere, sometime, when they made perfect sense or were clever or painted a picture for the audience (is that a cliche?). It’s only when they caught on and everyone started using them – and, often, they outlived their original meaning – that many of them lost their point, not to mention their edge, and caused people to grit their teeth. Or should.

Take “it’s not rocket science.” Doesn’t bother me. Like “it’s not brain surgery,” it says what it means: “It” (whatever “it” is) isn’t an intricate advanced procedure requiring great study, precision, and practice. It’s just – well, it is what it is. (Ugh. Sorry.) A few years ago, I came up with “it’s not rocket surgery,” which made Dennis laugh, but somebody else gave me a look like I’d used the wrong phrase, and I realized that there’s always someone who misses the point.

Many cliches are misunderstood, and users have no idea what they’re saying. A former boss and I used to giggle when a colleague said, “We need to nip that in the butt!” How many non-Christians know the origin of “doubting Thomas”? For that matter, how many Jews and Christians know how old is “old as Methuselah”? I know mainly because of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” as sung by the W&L Glee Club.

Bet kids today (there’s one) have no idea where “from scratch,” “stubborn as a mule,” “wild goose chase,” “win friends and influence people,” “keep your powder dry,” “15 minutes of fame,” and “chomping at the bit” came from. On the other hand, I’m pretty vague on “whole ball of wax,” “the real McCoy,” “call a spade a spade,” “whole kit and kaboodle,” “at loggerheads,” and “dead as a doornail” (were doornails in the habit of moving?). To me, the real McCoy is on Law & Order, and a Spade looks an awful lot like Philip Marlowe.

I’m sure I use plenty of cliches without giving it a thought. It’s always instructional to see a Shakespeare play for the first time and realize, “That’s where that comes from?” (Lisa and I looked at each other with that thought several times at Julius Caesar last year.) With so many cliches, there are some I’ve never heard of. Being a Yankee, I’d never heard “all hat, no cattle” until George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign. What a great expression! “All that and a bag of chips” was even newer to me, which is why I still find it delightful. (Odd, but delightful.) A list of cliches offers “hell-bent for leather,” “in the tank,” “rope a dope,” “talk turkey,” and “week of Sundays,” all of which I’ve heard at least once, and “bib and tucker” and “running dog lackey,” which I haven’t – but I don’t know what any of them means. (Okay, “in the tank” for a candidate means to be fully in favor of him or her, and “talk turkey” means to get down to brass tacks, but I don’t know why.)

Cliches can be fun. It’s a morning amusement to listen to the inarticulate players in the radio sports report, the ones who say that they came to play and the opponents are a very physical team. The incomparable Lorraine Feather collected dozens of these for her hilarious song “Hit the Ground Runnin’.” Every once in a while someone writes a column explaining the names of movies, books, or plays or noting how many common sayings go back to the Bible or, again, Shakespeare. Paul Dickson has made a career out of this with such books as The Dickson Baseball Dictionary and War Slang: American Fighting Words and Phrases Since the Civil War. On the other hand, on some mornings I believe I could play Other Political Party Bingo while reading the election-year coverage as they pull out every hackneyed bugaboo in (ahem) the book. When we say something, it’s true. When they say something, it’s absurd – not to mention unoriginal.

If I were writing the usual column on cliches, I’d finish by advising that readers avoid them like the plague or not use them going forward. But that would be … you know. Instead, I’ll let you in on a secret known only to current or former dairy-farm people like me. If you do something until the cows come home, you don’t have to do it all day. Just til about 4 pm in winter and 4:30 in summer.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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