2011-03-03 / Sam Bari

Sometimes we talk funny

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

“His boss had Jack ‘over a barrel.’ He was ‘three sheets to the wind’ at the time. But ‘by and large,’ at the ‘bitter end,’ in ‘the grand scheme of things,’ nothing really changed. If he ‘knew the ropes’ and had a little ‘leeway,’ I’m sure he would have ‘toed the line.’”

What’s wrong with this paragraph? “Nothing,” you say. “It makes perfect sense.” That could well be true. If American English is your first language, the sentences are probably understandable.

However, the composition of the sentences is dependent on a string of clichés. Most of them have nautical or military origins. To be clear, a cliché is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

If English were not your first language, and you were trying to translate the paragraph into another language, the paragraph could sound like senseless gibberish in the translation. This would particularly occur if the paragraph were being translated verbatim into a language that does not understand the use of clichés.

At one time or another, every writer has been told by an editor, teacher or mentor, “Eliminate clichés from your writing.” And the standard argument from students and aspiring authors is, “But they are common expressions – figures of daily speech.”

That may be true, but that does not mean they are correct when adhering to the principles of good writing.

Most teachers and editors will not dispute that everybody uses clichés as an expressive component of their everyday, conversational speech. However, there is a big difference between a conversation and written language intended for publication.

Clichés can occasionally be used in dialogue to make conversations more realistic. Even then, they must be used with caution, lest their meaning be misinterpreted.

We take for granted the current use of clichés without giving any thought to their origins and the actual meaning of what we are saying.

For instance, consider the cliché “over a barrel” as used in the first sentence. Instead of saying “had him at a disadvantage,” we say, “Had him over a barrel.”

The original use of the phrase “over a barrel,” literally meant just that. The most common method of punishment aboard a ship was flogging. Until the practice was prohibited at the turn of the 20th century, ship captains tied unfortunate sailors over the barrel of a deck cannon where they received their punishment.

Another example of a cliché misusing the meaning of words in a commonly accepted phrase is, “in the grand scheme of things.” Conversational use of the phrase generally means “in the master plan of the universe as designed by the deity.”

However, the word “scheme” is either a noun or verb that refers to an underhanded plan or plot to achieve a desired idea or intent by devious means. A scheme is a “con” as it were.

I hesitate to think that anyone intends to refer to the deity as forming a master plan to “con” or “deceive” believers. Although, history reveals that officials in the church did just that in the name of the deity to achieve selfish means.

The cliché “by and large” is currently used to mean “in all cases or in any case.” It comes from the nautical term “by” meaning into the wind, and “large” meaning with the wind: as in “by and large” the ship handled very well. The phrase originally had nothing to do with “in any case.”

When we say “skyscraper,” we generally mean a tall building. The original term referred to a small triangular sail set above the skysail on a clipper ship that was used to maximize effect in light wind.

The term “above board” is a cliché that errantly depicts “transparency, legitimacy or in plain view.” Its original use was another nautical term that referred to anything that was on or above the open deck on a ship.

In today’s vernacular, the cliché “son of a gun” is an endearing term referring to a mischievous person or child. Its original use was quite different.

When in port, wives and ladies of questionable virtue were allowed to live aboard ships with the crew. Occasionally, children were born on board. For convenience, births took place between guns on the gun deck. If the child’s father were unknown, the name entered in the ship’s log was “son of a gun.”

Clichés – another element to further confuse us in a system we can’t understand.

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