Like many children growing
up in the ’50s, I sometimes watched too much television. I remember my Mom
telling me, "That’s enough TV for today. Go outside and play with your
Although I may have wanted
to see the end of The Howdy Doody Show or find out how Hopalong Cassidy
turned out, once outside I was always happy to be reunited with my pals,
those wonderful, familiar words and phrases like thunderstruck and
a level playing field.
I would imagine myself
drifting with the tides of time, or being in the same boat
with Popeye the Sailor, searching far and wide for Olive Oyl, and
protecting her from that bully Brutus, which meant pulling no punches
and giving him his just
Sometimes I would sort
these colorful expressions into piles according to type:
or rhyming phrases,
such as first and foremost, few and far between, high and dry, and
such as a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, an apple a day
keeps the doctor away, and the
exception proves the rule.
such as at the end of the day, leave no stone unturned, hit the nail on
the head, and I’m all thumbs.
such as to be or not to be, we have met the enemy and it is us, a day
of infamy, the iron curtain, and ask
not what your country . . .
to myth or history,
such as between Scylla and Charybdis, Faustian, Gordian knot, Achilles’
heel, Pyrrhic victory, and Luddite.
phrases, such as
coup de grace, and vis-a-vis.
such as cease and desist, null and void, each and every, and
suffer and permit.
Some are words or phrases
"clinched by sound alone"; others are images "caught in the popular
fancy," as described by Sheridan Baker in The Practical Stylist
(and quoted by Bryan Garner in The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage
Ah, those happy days with
my clichés. But that’s another story. Now that I’m grown up (please, no
derisive comments), the only thing I hear about clichés is that you should
avoid them like the plague.
Don’t you sometimes wonder,
though, if all those familiar phrases are so worthless, why do they refuse
to die a graceful death? I’m not saying that every one of them is the
apple of our eye, but there must be something about them we find
They may be trite, but
their meaning is clear. And although raining cats and dogs may not be a
fresh image, it’s playful.
Perhaps the best way to use
a cliché is to take a standard phrase and give it a twist, to take the old
and make it new.
For example, if you drop
your marker while making a presentation, you might say, "Sorry. I washed
my hands this morning and I can’t do a thing with them."
Or if you’re describing
different genres of music, you might add some rhythm to your words by
writing "the good pop, the bad hip-hop, and the not-so-ugly blues."
Or if you’re writing
advertising copy for the Thanksgiving-Christmas buying season, you might
write "Dashing to and fro to find the right presents? Relax. We’re here to
make holiday shopping fun, fast, and easy."
You don’t have to be
traveling in one-horse open sleigh to catch the cadence of that opening