When a Nation Forgets Its Own Clichés . . .

. . . well that’s just sad.

As you splendid readers might – or might not – recall, the hardworking staff has diligently recorded mangled phrases in the media over the past few years. All too often, what once were familiar American idioms have become, regrettably, unfamiliar.

Several recent examples:

• On NPR’s All Things Considered last month, a commentator noted that federal lawmakers were not “falling over their swords” to take responsibility about disclosure of Congressional trips paid for by interest groups.

Uh, you either fall on your sword or fall all over yourself, yes? Not to get technical about it.

• On a local public broadcast show last month, an observer noted that the Massachusetts legislature had “snubbed their noses” at a Supreme Court ruling about abortion clinic accessibility.

Actually, the lawmakers either snubbed the ruling or thumbed their noses at it. Not to get technical about it.

• In a Studio 360 piece about Richard Renaldi’s photos of strangers touching one another, one of the subjects he approached said, “I’m kind of shy, so it took me for a loop.”

Sorry, but it either took you by surprise or threw you for a loop. One.

But there’s hope yet for the idiom-impaired.

From Monday’s Wall Street Journal Bookshelf (by Barton Swaim):

All Worn Out

It’s Been Said Before

by Orin Hargraves

I’m inclined to listen to any politician who warns his listeners about the dangers of deficit spending—right up until he talks about “kicking the can down the road.” The use of that deplorable old cliché suggests to me that the speaker isn’t, in fact, interested in persuading anybody of anything, since he BN-EA846_bkrvcl_D_20140810135420can’t be bothered to express himself on the issue without relying on a worn-out phrase that he’s heard a thousand times before. And anyway, why should kicking a can down a road signify putting off financial obligations? Will I have to pick the can up later? Can I not just leave it lying in the road?

Although Orin Hargraves doesn’t discuss kicking the can in “It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliché,” it must be one of the few he’s missed. The book is an incisive and engaging catalog of stock phrases, organized into grammatical categories and listed alphabetically.

The book is not a dictionary of clichés, Swaim adds, but rather “a tour of the language at its most tired and tawdry: from the seemingly innocuous collocations ‘all and sundry’ and ‘by no means’ to the weird yet commonplace ‘kith and kin’ and ‘in high dudgeon’ to the culpably stupid ‘it goes without saying’ and ‘for all intents and purposes.'”

By all means, check it out.

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