Posted tagged ‘cliches’

Going Forward, Part 2

July 14, 2012

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.

Going Forward, Part 1

June 17, 2012

Otherwise known as the Department of Redundancy Bureau.

It’s rare that this pointless phrase is ever useful. Ninety-some percent of the time, you can slice it out of a sentence and never know it was there. To prove this, let’s take some random headlines and other lines from the Internet:

“Greek economy faces challenges going forward”

“Biggest positional needs going forward for Steelers”

“Sony reveals business plan going forward for 2012”

“We recently announced that, going forward, Windows Phone will be ….”

“Celtics going forward with a familiar core”

Okay, that last one is a legitimate use. The others? Well, I could cross my eyes every time I heard such nonsense, but as Mom used to warn, “Your face will freeze like that.”

An editor risks frostbite at all the redundancies in newspapers, on billboards, in junk mail, on TV, on radio, online, on banners behind small airplanes, etc. etc. For example:

* free gift                                                                                  * 9 am in the morning

* added bonus                                                                         * continue on

* unexpected surprise                                                           * true fact

* PIN number, VIN number, ATM machine,                   * armed gunman

SAT test, HIV virus                                                               * unconfirmed rumor

* surrounded on all sides                                                     * past history

Piece of cake, as they say, to edit such phrases as “a variety of different things” and “a potential hazard.” That’s why I can pretty much promise an ability to shorten any piece of prose — there are always cliches, redundancies, multiple words and phrases where one or two will do, and so on.

In most cases, I guess, people just aren’t paying attention. Most people don’t give any more thought to language than they do to their route to work or what they had for breakfast Monday. More important, they never learned grammar in the first place, never had the benefit of reading literature, didn’t learn a foreign language and analyze the differences with English, didn’t do crosswords, or didn’t have teachers who pointed out illogic with red pens and led class discussions on, say, “9 am in the morning,” a term I keep hearing on WTOP around 7 am. In the morning.

I expect that of Everyman at this point. I don’t expect it from President Obama and his speechwriters, who allowed “going forward” a few days ago. Ugh! Speaking only about grammar and language, we had eight years of an inane president. This one was a constitutional law professor known for his erudite speeches and a couple of well-reviewed bestsellers he wrote himself. Et tu?

Of course, spoken language has something of an excuse for redundancy. You need to be understood both literally and figuratively. Advertisers want to get that magic word “free” into your head. “PIN” is one syllable, so “PIN number” is clearer on the phone and in recorded instructions. Presidents, perhaps, want to sounds like your average Joe (Biden? Plumber?), though the wisdom of that varies by what they say. If studies show that people need to hear a message eight times before it sticks, maybe a bit of redundancy is forgivable when life has so many distractions.

But there’s no excuse for “future plans” or “true fact” (do people really say that unironically?). Aggravating as it is to hear terms like this, the best approach may be a dual one: as an editor, to strike them whenever possible, and as a listener, to laugh. It’s better than raising my blood pressure or crossing my eyes. But more on that in the next chapter — Going Forward, Part 2 — about cliches.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.