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Joe Carillo
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« on: December 16, 2016, 09:09:47 AM »

The Lovely Clichés Worth Keeping
By Jose A. Carillo

Our job as learners and users of the English language is to be discerning enough to know whether or not a catchy turn of phrase has already descended into the depths of cliché. This is not easy to do. It needs a lot of listening to English as spoken by its countless speakers all over the world. It requires reading a lot of English literature as written by modern and contemporary writers. In fact, there simply is no other way to be current with one’s English than to have a lifelong love affair with it.

Some clichés may be forgivable or even worth keeping, as with some truly memorable lines that have been recorded for posterity in verse or song, like “as time goes by,” “love is a many splendored thing,” and “splendor in the grass.”  But there are cliché-like expressions that we should be merciless about. We should hunt them down and take no prisoners. They are the ones that, like legalese, try their best to browbeat us into unthinking followers. Deadly examples are the largely empty and meaningless terms that bureaucrats and aspiring bureaucrats use, such as “at this point in time” (now), “give consideration to” (consider), “it is the opinion of this office” (we believe), “with reference to” (concerning), “it is our duty to be cognizant of ” (we need to know), and “You are hereby advised that as of this date” (Today, you need to know). We all have to slog through them every time we deal with bureaucracy and corporate officialdom.

The thing is that in earlier times, what is often called “official prose” probably started as a gentler nudge or milder call to action: “Please do this” and “Kindly do that” and that sort of thing. But as bureaucracies and corporate organizations grew and became more complex, it became harder and harder to get people to comply. English had to be invented that had a coercive, punitive ring to it. There had to be no vulnerable human face; instead there could only be the big bureaucratic or corporate imprimatur, cold and imposing. And so was born the impersonal officious, official prose, or what is now called by some as “bureaucratese” or “corporatese.” It is the English that tells you to “obey or face the consequences.” It is a horrible legacy of our colonial times that organizations today have only begun to shrug off, not without shame and embarrassment, and only with half-baked results. A glance at a random stack of memos in many government or company offices studded with clichés will attest to this.

When, you might ask, does a respectable turn of phrase approach the threshold towards clichédom? “Bide one’s time,” “bring to mind,” “break the ice,” and “break fresh ground” look still secure enough from becoming clichés. They have not outlived their purpose yet. But “bite the bullet,” “bite the dust,” and “bite the hand that feeds you” have, I am afraid, all gone the way of the dead clichés. The atmospherics of the Old West that gave life to them simply are no longer around. “Burn one’s bridges behind” and “burn the candle at both ends” have concededly also become anachronisms, as with “sling one’s hook,” “by hook or by crook,” and “a stitch in time saves nine.” But I think that “break the news,” “break up with someone,” and “break it to me gently” will continue to stand the test of time “come what may.”

We can go on and on and get emotional about clichés, but we can afford this luxury only for a little while. We still have a lot of ground to cover about English and must put every minute to good use. So at this point, to check our progress, I want you to take a little English spot quiz. I call it the Helen Gurley Brown Test, in honor of the former editor of Cosmopolitan who, in her book The Writer’s Rules: The Power of Positive Prose, designed it as an exercise for identifying clichés. How many of them can you spot in her test passage below? I want you to honestly score yourselves as you do so.

Quote
“Mary is known for giving as good as she gets. When Steve, trying to get her goat, told her she was ugly as sin, she was all over him like a tent. Who did he think he was, God’s gift to women? Not on your life, thought Mary. She could spot a sitting duck when she saw one and, in this case, Steve stuck out like a sore thumb. She went after him tooth and nail, calling him every name in the book, until he finally cried uncle and slunk away with his tail between his legs, a sadder and wiser man who learned his lesson the hard way.”


Now that you have taken the test, I will let you in on a little conspiracy. From now on, you and I will be silent partners. We will be the final arbiters of what is cliché and what is not. But we will try to be as educated and knowledgeable about this as we go along. We will not impose any hard-and-fast rules because we know in our heart of hearts that it just won’t work. Hunting clichés should be a life-long avocation. Shooting a nasty one to death is pleasurable. But better still is to find a survivor and tweak it back to life, like making a deft, cliché-based feature headline in a newspaper or magazine. It is one of the little miracles of the English language. But do it only one at a time. Just on a thing or two. Hum it and make it sound good and haunting “like an old cliché,” as in that beautiful, half-forgotten song of a long time ago. (2002)

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in 2002 and subsequently appeared in Jose Carillo’s book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language. Copyright © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo. Copyright © 2004 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

RELATED SONG FROM LONG AGO:
“Come In from the Rain”
As sung by Melissa Manchester (1976, original version)
As sung by The Captain & Tennille (1977)
As sung by Shirley Bassey (1979)
Lyrics of “Come In from the Rain” by Carole Bayer Sager and Melissa Manchester

COMPANION ESSAY:
Fighting Back Against Clichés
« Last Edit: February 08, 2017, 01:53:32 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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