Words At Play

While reading a very interesting book I noticed that the author used a common cliché that was totally inconsistent with the level of writing in the rest of the book.  It distracted me.  It made me wonder why the author suddenly veered into the world of the trite, and it made me wonder why the book’s editor allowed such a phrase to remain in the manuscript.  Maybe both were a bit lazy.

Perhaps I should not have been so surprised.  After all, we use numerous clichés in our speech every day without even realizing it.  In fact, it would be difficult for many of us to communicate with others if we made a conscious decision not to use clichés.  Take a moment to read a paragraph from Linton Weeks’ NPR article “50 Clichés of Gray: In Defense of Old Truisms” to get an idea of just how often clichés are used in English.

“There are those — perhaps with an ax to grind — who believe in their hearts and minds that we should run like the wind from a truism as if it’s a snake in the grassRaise the bar, they say, and avoid repeating the same old same oldTake the road less traveled. Do your own thing.

Now, take time to rewrite that paragraph without using a single cliché.  Imagine how stilted your speech would be if you had a cliché filter in your mind that had to catch every cliché you were about to utter, and then had to find a word or words to replace it before you could speak.  Little communication would take place.

Imagine the problems a person just learning to speak English would have if he or she tried to understand the construction of many of our clichés.  For instance, when you say that a boy is the “spitting image” of his father, what exactly does the word “spitting” have to do with our attempt to say that a boy looks like his father?  And what does “hue” mean in “hue and cry”?  A New York Times article by Rivka Galchen and Leslie Jamison looks into this aspect of clichés and more.

Galchen mentions two things that may interest you.  The first is George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” and the other is George Carlin’s routine concerning the devolvement of “shell shock” into “post-traumatic stress disorder.”


It's Been Said Before

Lexicographer, professor, and author Orin Hargraves started out to write a book condemning clichés, but ended up writing a book that defends the use of them – in some cases.  The book he wrote is titled It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés.  He was recently interviewed by Rachel Martin.

If you happen to have any doubt about how many clichés the English language has, look at the list that Laura Hayden provides.  The list is appropriately titled “Clichés: Avoid Them Like the Plague.”

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The Power of Babel

What will be the dominant language 100 years from now?  According to linguist and author John McWhorter, English will be dominant, but there will be many fewer languages that it will have to compete with – perhaps only 10 percent of the languages that exist today.  He discusses the subject in a very interesting Wall Street Journal article.

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Cora Levinson, the daughter of a wealthy American, has lots of money, but she wants a title – which she can never obtain in America.  Robert Crawley is an English aristocrat who is the Earl of Grantham.  He has a title, but is in peril of losing the family estate, Downton Abbey, because of his financial problems.  They marry, and both get what they want – Cora becomes a countess and Robert gets the money he needs.  Love is not part of the bargain, but will, hopefully, develop later.

Cora is a fictional character, but there were many wealthy American women in the late nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century who made the same bargain that she made with Robert.  They were called “dollar princesses” because they used their wealth to gain a title in Europe.  Sunday Morning on CBS recently did a story about these ladies.  The Smithsonian Channel is doing a three part series on the dollar princesses which is hosted by Elizabeth McGovern who portrays Lady Grantham on Downton Abbey.

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