She Who Reads Newspapers: “Dear, it seems a raft of measures has been swept out to sea by a storm of protest.”
“Zounds,” I say (exhuming an archaic oath meaning indignation). “That will teach them not to put all their eggs in one basket.”
There was a time when a journalist wouldn’t touch a cliché with a barge pole, as Nigel Rees says in the introduction to his book, The Joy of Cliches. We all ought to have learned this at our mothers’ knees. Or as per a poster in a venerable Fleet Street news room: “Cliches should be avoided like the plague”. That said, the word itself as a double-word score is worth 26 points.
A cliché is an expression which has lost its original meaning through over-use and thus become trite or irritating. More persistent is the over-use of axioms (a phrase as self-evident as to be taken as a truth) and idioms (wise but clichéd sayings which often make no literal sense).
Today’s generation of journalists seem wedded, indeed married to the notion of over-using axioms, idioms and clichés. Battening down the hatches, they defy the fickle finger of fate, avoid being hoist with their own petards and keep everyone on tenterhooks.
According to worldwidewords.org, it is a long time since anyone saw a tenter, never mind the hooks. It refers to a process of making woollen cloth involved drying and stretching lengths of wet cloth on wooden frames (tenters), allowing them to dry and straightening their weave. Metal hooks were used to fix the cloth to the frame.
To be on tenterhooks, translating to someone being in a state of anxious suspense, goes back a bit. While fabric makers were using both tenters and hooks from the 11th century, the exact phrase on tenterhooks was first used by Tobias Smollett in Roderick Random in 1748.
Cliches to avoid like the paralysis tick
Steve Lautenschlager compiled 1658 splendid examples of the clichés to which so many of us turn when written or verbal expression finds us wanting. Among these gems are those that mention bridges, under which much water has flowed.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, that is, unless we’ve already burnt it.”
You could spend a bit of time, as I did, hunting down the supposed derivation of such clichéd phrases as ‘dressed to the nines’ (attributed to tailors using nine yards of cloth to make a suit). ‘Too many chiefs and not enough Indians’ is the original and now politically incorrect way of denigrating office politics, committees, boards and editorial meetings. One can vary this to ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ or ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ – in all, they mean too many people attempting to achieve something and in the end achieving nothing.
Babies and bathwater
Now contemplate the vividly awful image of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I suppose it depends what floor you’re on. It also brings a new twist to the 19th century French warning “Garde à l’eau” which residents bellowed before throwing their bedpan contents out of the upstairs bedroom window.
The baby and the bathwater idiom means to discard something valuable along with something not wanted, from the German proverb, Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten, first recorded in English in 1853 by Thomas Carlyle.
Australian journalist Chris Pash has become the unofficial curator of cliché use in journalism.
Pash went through the Dow Jones Factiva database to short-list seven howlers he claims are the worst – in fact he challenges readers to put them all in one sentence. So here goes:
“At the end of the day, there was a split second outpouring of support for the unsung heroes who, after a last ditch effort, saved concerned residents from an embarrassing about face.”
I would have thought ‘sort after’ might get a mention.
Making a sow’s ear and all that
We all should know why journalists, particularly those who have to turn around fresh radio news every half hour, resort to snatching things out of thin air, saving a stitch in time, keeping their shoulder to the wheel, going the extra mile and cutting off their editor’s nose to spite his face.
A fresher way to express the latter would be to say that Alice, who in doing something bad to her editor out of a need for revenge, caused herself more harm because she is now perceived as a hateful harpy who can’t spell “sought after”.
It is truly disturbing in 2015 to peruse Nigel Rees’s book and the chapter about clichés in journalism (he wrote the book in 1984), to find that many are not, as one might expect, dead as a doornail. When all’s said and done, the smell of midnight oil or martyrs burning ought to set alarm bells ringing.
Rees says one of the more useful clichés for a journalist is ‘amid mounting’ – which as he coyly observes has nothing to do with horses or sex. Only journalists can use ‘amid mounting’ as it can be appended to any number of news stories linked to words like ‘opposition’ ‘derision’ ‘calls for his or her resignation’ (or in Oz) ‘calls for another leadership spill’.
Don’t drop the petard
The Phrase Finder’s Gary Martin observes just how many of the tired old maxims and tropes we use derive from the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Consider “Hoist with your own petard.” (Hamlet 1602). A petard is, or rather was, a small bell-shaped device full of gunpowder used to blow breaches in gates or walls. Once you know what it means, being ‘hoist with your own petard’ is easy to fathom. It’s like pulling the pin out of a grenade in a trench then dropping the damn thing so it rolls downhill and under a plank and by the time you lift the plank…
Basically it means hurting yourself while in the act of trying to hurt others. The analogy would not be lost on Tony Abbott, nor, to be fair, on Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd, or, in the fullness of time, Malcolm Turnbull.
Throwing glasses at castle walls
We could have some more fun with this but the real reason writers use common clichés and weary phrases is it soaks up the word count in less than no time, or no time at all if you prefer. But it’s a risky business pointing out other writers’ flaws.
As a waggish writer (possibly moi), once quoth: “People who live in stone houses shouldn’t throw glasses.”
So I’ll admit to playing with fire, stirring up an ant’s nest or even opening a can of worms, though why anyone would keep a can of worms in the pantry is anyone’s guess.
I just go with the flow, you know, Steve’s handy cliché list at hand. I’m running with wolves, burning the candle at both ends, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Speaking of which, it’s time to rest on my laurels, so to speak, and hand this over to She Who has Eyes in the Back of her Head, the most sort (sic –Ed!) after editor this side of the Black Stump.