Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Tony Deyal | Tired of cliches? Try this for size

Published:Saturday | May 26, 2018 | 12:00 AM

A young student was asked to use the word 'cliche' in a sentence. She wrote, "Father came home from work with a cliche on his face." When the teacher demanded an explanation, she said that she had checked it in the dictionary, and the word 'cliche' means "a worn-out expression".

The group that has worn out the expressions most is the genus politicus - politicians. They speak in a kind of shorthand or code that consists almost entirely of cliches. If a net can be considered a number of holes sewn together with twine, a politician's speech is a number of cliches fused together by hot air.

A politician who can avoid cliches is worth his weight in gold. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, cliches are hard for politicians to eschew. But they should be avoided like the plague as they provide the acid test for politicians in deadly earnest of being considered the new kids on the block or new brooms that sweep clean.

To me, cliches are the most annoying things under the sun, like a red flag to a bull. I bare my teeth when I hear one. My blood boils, and I am up in arms as I vent my wrath on the television or radio when I catch a politician red-handed using a cliche.

It goes without saying that politicians view with alarm my indignation. They do have a bone of contention when I write them off lock, stock and barrel because of their hackneyed phrases. It takes the wind from their sails and, because it is in the newspaper, adds insult to injury.

What is the politician to do? He is literally up the creek - caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. However, he must take the bull by the horns and become a tower of strength, fighting the cliche habit through thick and thin. He must have the courage of his convictions to nip in the bud every trite phrase or overused word. Through supreme sacrifices too numerous to mention, he will be able to develop a speaking style second to none.

It will not be easy to keep a stiff upper lip and be as cool as a cucumber in the process, but soon, our politicians will be able to turn the tables on their opponents with the rapidity of a bolt from the blue. And it will not be once in a blue moon either. They will all be as happy as clams as they snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The cliches will be conspicuous by their absence. Their reign of terror will end. I will be able to point with pride to the politician who ends his ill-fated association with cliches and becomes one of the select few.


More to the story


Unfortunately, there is more here than meets the eye. In the final analysis, a leopard cannot change his spots, and we will continue to hear about things happening behind closely guarded doors by tight-lipped committee members engaged in a far-reaching inquiry. Efforts will continue to be intensified against the rising tide of every possible ill. Government will take a firm stand against this, that and the other, and speculation will always be rife.

Last, but not least, the politicians are not alone. Perhaps my journalist friends can answer - What makes a fire a 'conflagration'? Was the fire really stubborn? Was the smoke acrid? Did it pour out? Did it billow? Was it really a wild chase? Were the weapons brandished, wielded, or merely held? Is the truth always naked? Are blessings always disguised? Are conclusions always foregone? Are buildings forever completely destroyed?

A few years ago, Carlos Lozado of the Washington Post wrote 'Two hundred journalism cliches and counting'. Some of those he identified are 'at first glance' (or worse, 'at first blush'), 'upon deeper reflection' (why not reflect deeply from the start?), 'observers' (unless referring to people actually sitting around watching something), 'probe' (an uncomfortable substitute for 'investigation'), 'opens/offers a rare window' (unless it is a real window that is in fact unusual), 'begs the question' (unless used properly - and so rarely used properly that it's not worth the trouble), 'be that as it may' and 'a cautionary tale'. There are also 'cautionary optimistic', 'at a crossroads' (unless referring to an actual intersection), 'don't get me wrong', 'make no mistake', 'palpable sense of relief' (unless you can truly touch it), 'little-noticed', 'closely watched' and 'hastily convened'.

An article by Merril Perlman, a consultant who specialises in editing and the English language, in The Colombia Journalism Review on February 2, 2015, identified a few words or expressions that readers hated the most. One is 'arguably'. She argued that depending on context, 'arguably' could mean 'probably' or 'it's something that has to be discussed'.

Even the definition of 'arguable' in Webster's New World College Dictionary is arguable: 'that can be argued about' and 'that can be supported by argument'. Her advice is, "Best to avoid it; just say what you mean." I won't argue with that kind of sage advice, although it remains to be seen whether most journalists would claim that they are overworked and underpaid and write under too much pressure for them to think outside the box.

One of these situations is when you are faced with 'breaking' news. But, as Ms Perlman 'opines', 'Breaking' gets overused on news crawls. Not every news event is worth the 'breaking' designation. Besides, why does news 'break' in the first place? It 'occurs' or 'happens'. If it 'breaks', are journalists supposed to fix it?"

I would love to see an end to cliches, but for all intents and purposes, that is merely wishful thinking.

- Tony Deyal was last seen between a rock and a hard place, twiddling his thumbs, stark raving mad. It seems the cliches had gone to his head. Needless to say, the news spread like wildfire.