Mind your language


8 July 2017

9:00 AM

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

The most tired cliché in English, suggests ​​Orin Hargraves, the American philologist, is at the end of the day. I’ve just read a review in the Times Literary Supplement of his book on ​​clichés, It’s Been Said Before, published not this year, or in 2016, or 2015, but in 2014. This seems an admirable attitude to noticing books. Why not leave a book a generation? Let time separate wheat from chaff, and save the effort of threshing and winnowing.

Mr Hargraves m​ay well frighten readers into guiltily examining their worn, off-the-peg language, but he sees the glory of cliché. It provides ‘a stock of dependable formulas for conveying the ordinary’, which sounds as poetic as Homer. He (Mr Hargarves, not Homer) distinguishes between a cliché and an idiom, the meaning of which is ‘noncompositional’, that is, not apparent from the words that make it up. An example would be kick the bucket.

I’m not sure. Take fit as a fiddle. What’s so fit about a fiddle? It is often out of tune. So the phrase should count as a noncompositional idiom. But fit as a flea would count as a cliché, since its meaning is transparent.

I thought about this, waiting at the supermarket check-out,​ as it happened. When we say that someone is sacked, the metaphor is obscure. The victim is not sewn up in a sack and thrown into the river, like an ancient Roman parricide. To give the sack to someone is a little clearer. Randle Cotgrave, in his great French-English dictionary, published in 1611, like the Authorised Version of the Bible, quoted a French version, On luy a donné son sac, ‘said of a servant whom his master hath put away’. In English, get the sack isn’t found much before The Pickwick Papers (1836).

I can’t see there’s much in it between be sacked, be given the sack and get the sack, as far as cliché goes. But then, I suppose, cliché is a cliché too, literally meaning a printer’s stereotype. Before the 1880s we had no clichés in language. The English for a printer’s cliché is a dab. I might start using it: ‘A dab-ridden piece of journalism.’ After a while someone might guess what I meant.

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