Each cliche a cliffhanger


Image by Tom Newby https://www.flickr.com/photos/noodle93)

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.


  1. ‘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.’
    Can we therefore take on board the assumption that the concerned residents (= Indian English) or residents concerned have achieved their primary goal and, moving forward, and with a positive outcome re the triple bottom line which is now in their sights, they are home and hosed and all is hunckydory?

  2. Hmmmmm. Good one Bob. But this old sub-editor can’t resist pointing out that Shakespeare used hoist WITH his own petard (not by). Not “on” either, which I recall was once allowed in some newspaper style books — possibly because a senior headline-writer found “with” would not fit. Mutter mutter.
    And further…. “Sought after” is an abomination. Something is sought full stop. The “after” is real estate slang and redundant. In my style book anyway. ?

  3. Agreed, Graham. The real estate industry can be blamed for a lot of things, least of all corruption of the language. As for petard, with on or by seems interchangeable, but yes, Shakespeare used ‘with.’ Good to see someone’s was watching!

  4. Of course we don’t expect journalists to be crafting original literary prose on the run*, and it’s a thin line* between a cliché and those idiomatic figures of speech that are part of the way we all use English.

    I think the truly irritating clichés are irritating because they are lazy devices for avoiding the exact word. They are also irritating because (as you suggest) they’re not part of everyday English language, but form some insider language that only journalists use and (I assume) only when they’re on the job. Does a journalist arrive home late and say, “Sorry, I left work on time but the traffic ground to a halt on the motorway”?

    Here are three examples that get on my wick.*

    1. An acquitted person never leaves court, is never released or allowed to go or set free. They always “walk free”. They don’t run, or limp, or stroll or drive, or skip in skittish delight, they walk free. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are: proven innocent, given credit for time served, lightly sentenced by a lefty-liberal judge, case of mistaken identity…. They always “walk free”. I reckon this one comes from the deeply ingrained journalistic urge to whip up indignation in the reader. “Walk free” implies some shady, undeserving character sauntering out of the court, sniggering at the wishy-washy system that is allowing him to walk free, down to the pub to enjoy a few beers while he mocks the rest of us law-abiding citizens. All we can do is shake our heads and mutter in disbelief, “”He walked free!”

    2. “The tight-knit community of [insert name of town, suburb, street, ping-pong club, water polo team] has been rocked by the death of [insert name of deceased member of previously mentioned community].” In these circumstances, communities are always tightly knitted, and the verb is nearly always “rocked”. It’s the laziness if this that I dislike. It doesn’t add anything to the story that a telling of the circumstances would provide, and it loses its impact by having been used repeatedly as a template. (I thought I was alone in noticing this till one of the SMH’s curmudgeonly correspondents drew attention to it recently. They did omit mention of that essential verb though.)

    3. When I was still in Toowoomba and reading The Chronicle, it felt as if I was seeing this one every second day. Here’s a 2012 example, headlining a story about a dog show: “Pampered pooches strut their stuff.” Strut their stuff! I heard it again on commercial TV news recently, just for old time’s sake.*

    * Cliché or acceptable idiom?

  5. Thanks Bob 🙂
    I haven’t checked the list of 1600+, & I’m not sure if it would count as a cliche, however this piece galvinises me to mention to you, a lifelong search of mine, for an authoritative explanation of the meaning of one of my favourite expressions:
    *different kettle of fish*

    There’s other versions of it, & a few different conjectures re it’s geographical/cultural source being either Scottish or Jewish.

    Any thoughts?

  6. Oh now you’ve got me on a roll – I have some memory of kippers being boiled in a kettle and if you had the luxury of a copper kettle it would be…
    On the other hand, this link expounds

Comments are closed