Friday, September 4, 2009

That Is SO Cliché!

One of the reasons why I created this blog was to practice my writing skills. I enjoy writing, and I've had some kind compliments from various people about my writing. At risk of sounding immodest, I consider my writing skills to be above-average.

This is not to say that there isn't room for improvement. I'm aware of several weaknesses in my writing. For example, I tend to overuse clichés like they're going out of style. Armed with this awareness, I decided recently to read up on clichés. "Know thine enemy," as they say! My research led me to a web site called Cliché Finder ( which offers a large repository of clichés.

While browsing Cliché Finder's collection of clichés (as if I needed to learn more of them), it occurred to me that clichés can apparently be divided into broad groups, each with its own unique characteristics. I've identified four distinct categories of clichés (well, okay, five actually, but I'll explain about that shortly).

The first group consists clichés that use obscure words with mystery meanings (or was that mystery words with obscure meanings?) For example:

"Thanks to my 3.2-litre hemi, I have 320 horses at my beck and call!"

What's a "beck"? How does one "beck", exactly? Its usage suggests that it's synonymous with "summon". You never hear anyone say "I becked up all the courage I could muster", or "I was becked by my boss on the weekend" or "The district court served me with a becks because of my large and impressive collection of unpaid parking tickets". (Actually, if district courts were to serve Beck's, I'd commit a lot more traffic offenses!)

Maybe it's a distortion or a mispronunciation. Maybe the original word was "beckon", as in "Thanks to my 3.2-litre hemi, I have 320 horses at my beckon call". Still doesn't quite read properly, but at least "beckon" is a recognizable word, and it does fit the context.

Another example: "After the hurricane, the entire city was strewn with flotsam and jetsam." What are "flotsam" and "jetsam"? Has anyone ever seen a flotsam or a jetsam? Actually, the usage makes them sound like plural terms. What's the singular? A "flotsa" and a "jetsa"? Are they anything like "brick-a-brack"? For that matter, I've never seen a brick-a-brack either, even though my attic seems to be full of it, according to a recent post on this blog. I'm pretty sure there's some flotsam and jetsam lying about up here as well. I probably just don't recognize it.

One last example: "He took the whole kit and caboodle". Again, I'm not sure what a "caboodle" is. Sounds like some sort of weird fusion of a taxi cab and a poodle.

The second category of clichés that I've identified is comprised of clichés with recognizable words that are nevertheless used in a strange or unusual context:

"I have no truck with gay people". The context is that the speaker has no "problem" with gay people or has no objection to gay people. Taken literally, one might think that the speaker was asked to produce a truck laden with homosexuals and, regrettably, was unable to comply.

"You pay through the nose to get a plumber on a weekend". Personally, I would be most averse to accepting as compensation for services rendered anything that was discharged from the nostrils of my client.

Then there's a relatively new cliché that I love to hate, and which my daughter uses constantly. "Hey Jessica," I once said to her, "I saw a mechanic at the Jiffy Lube that looks just like Jim Carrey!" Her response: "That's random!" I don't quite understand. What's random about it? Did she think that I saw a Jim Carrey look-alike at a random Jiffy Lube? No, it was a very specific Jiffy Lube. Perhaps she meant that there's a random number of grease monkeys who resemble Jim Carrey. She explained that "random", in this context, apparently means "weird" or "bizarre". I told her that one can't just go assigning random meanings to the word "random".

Next we have clichés that paint odd mental pictures:

"Robert Mugabe can go to hell in a hand basket!" Although I'm quite sincere in this assertion, I'm not sure why a hand basket would be the most appropriate vehicle for one's trip to Hades. Maybe that's what Satan uses to collect the souls that he carries off down there. Hand baskets conjure up images of Little Red Riding Hood or bonnetted maidens packing picnic lunches. They seem a little, how shall I say, "effeminate" for the Lord of Darkness - not that there's anything wrong with that!

Consider this snippit from Ray Stevens' "The Streak": "I was standin' over there by the tomaters, and here he come, running through the pole beans, through the fruits and vegetables, naked as a jay bird!" Granted, jay birds don't wear clothes. On the other hand, they are at least covered with feathers. I can think of other species of animal that I would consider to be much more "naked" than jay birds. The most obvious example would be the Sphynx, a rare breed of hairless cat. Admittedly, a lot of people might not know what a Sphynx is, or might confuse it with the half-lion, half-man Egyptian statue, so perhaps the better-known naked mole-rat would be a more appropriate simile. "Naked as a mole-rat" sounds just as hip as "naked as a jay bird", if not more so. One might consider the phrase "Naked as a naked mole-rat", in order to emphasize the comparison with a naked mole-rat as opposed to fur-bearing mole-rats, but I suggest that this alternative phrase repeats the word "naked" in overly-rapid succession and, thus, sounds repetitive, so I would leave it as "Naked as a mole-rat" and trust in the listener's understanding of the intended reference.

Finally, there's the well-known "Here's mud in your eye!" spoken immediately before quaffing an alcoholic beverage. What a strange toast! Why would anyone sling mud into the ocular orifice of a drinking buddy? This cliché might be more appropriately used in anger. Rather than actually throwing a drink in the face of someone who has given offense, one might retort "Oh yeah? Well, here's mud in your eye!" and then walk away. I would argue that it conveys the appropriate level of anger and disgust, without wasting a perfectly good drink or exposing the wielder to the danger of getting a dry-cleaning bill later on.

The fourth category of clichés consist of phrases that seem to say the opposite of their intended meaning. The most notorious, by far, is the relatively recent "I could care less". This is, of course, merely a distortion of the original "I couldn't care less" which makes a lot more sense than the newer cliché. The phrase is meant to convey extreme indifference; however, anyone who "could care less" is not all that indifferent at all, since he or she obviously does care to some degree. Grammatical distortions such as this are, in my opinion, simply the result of mental sloppiness on the part of those who couldn't care less about proper diction, grammatical precision and the preservation of the English language.

A similar cliché is the sarcastic "Tell me about it!" This is generally used by those who are already fully aware of the situation referred to by "it". As such, there is, in fact, no need to tell the speaker about "it" at all.

I said that I had actually identified five categories of clichés. The fifth category would be clichés that are grammatically and lexically normal, their only flaw being their grotesque over-use; clichés such as "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched", "It never rains, but it pours" or "All good things must end", and so must this particular post. After all, I wouldn't want to overstay my welcome, though the time spent writing these things does seem to pass in the blink of an eye.

I hereby resolve henceforth to avoid the use of clichés like the plague, and may lighting strike me down if I... ZZZZAP!!!

1 comment:

Tubes said...

Well for the love of Pete............