Day 169: Speak only in clichés.Posted: June 18, 2011
“Never use seven words when four will do.”
I hate clichés. I hate them with the fire of a thousand suns. I hate them with an unquenchable hatred. When I find myself employing them, in speech or writing, I wash my mouth out with soap and put a dollar in my cliché jar. Then I take the rest of the day off, drink too much, and pass out on the bathroom floor.
There is a picture of George Orwell in this post because, in 1946, Orwell published an essay — “Politics and the English Language” — which contains a paragraph that captures quite nicely how I feel about clichés:
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.
I wasn’t entirely sure what that first one — ring the changes on — meant, so I looked it up, and it apparently has something to do with bells, but I don’t exactly understand what: the long and short of it is that ring the changes on is a stupid cliché, which is sort of my point about all of them.
The English language is capable of amazing and ridiculous images and metaphors, and settling for dried cans of beige paint when you can have the love-child of Jackson Pollock and Henri Matisse throwing liquid color at your face is just sad.
Of course, sometimes things get out of hand.