24/7 With the Cliche Expert



Between 1935 and 1952, the humorist Frank Sullivan wrote a series of essays for The New Yorker in which Mr. Arbuthnot, the cliche expert, testified on the trite expressions and hackneyed phrases of the day. Almost 50 years have passed since his last appearance, so it is clearly time for Mr. Arbuthnot to make a return appearance.

Q: Mr. Arbuthnot, since your last testimony, have you continued to follow the world of cliches?

A: I'm all over it, 24/7.

Q: I beg your indulgence, but since it has been so long since you have made a public appearance, would you mind answering a few questions to establish your expertise?

A: Whassup with that? Sorry if I've got that deer-in-the-headlights look, but I'm shocked, shocked. Here's my deal: I'm a world-class talking head. I've made my bones and I've got all my bona fides. When you chatted me up about this, you didn't give me a heads up that I had to reinvent myself.

Q: Again, I apologize, but I am merely following the charter of this committee.

A: Whatever.

Q: All right. I shall give you a series of nouns, and you supply the adjective that Homerically must precede each one. Are you ready?

A: As I'll ever be.

Q: Competition is?

A: Fierce.

Q: And any success?

A: Unqualified.

Q: Agendas, endorsements, margins, bases, sources, the future, arguments, potential, waters, efforts, and breath?

A: Hidden, key, slim (or overwhelming), continuing, knowledgeable, foreseeable, heated, full, uncharted, Herculean, and bated. Bada bing! I may not be the flavor of the month, but I'm on a roll.

Q: You certainly are, and you will clearly be a valuable witness for our committee.

A: Sweet. And I'm sorry for going postal a minute ago. I promise I won't be high maintenance. With all the media here, I can see where this could be a win-win. Besides, I want to give something back.

Q: Let me start the questioning with this: Have you noticed any new cliches recently?

A: Big time. Bottom line: Arguably, this is the cliche's 15 minutes.

Q: Let's back up a minute. What people have you been observing?

A: The American people.

Q: Could you be more specific?

A: Not a problem. I'm talking boomers, Gen X, 20-somethings, foodies, techies, netizens, fashionistas, suits, the flyover people, bean-counters, the punditocracy, eye candy, A-list directors, midlist authors, the usual suspects, swing voters, the beleaguered middle class, the special interests, stay-at-home moms, feminazis, hotties, angry white males, mental-health professionals, yellow-dog Democrats, high-priced lawyers, the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, the language police, and the glitterati.

Q: Anybody else?

A: Sorry -- senior moment. The Greatest Generation. And that's my final answer :)

Q: Which field of endeavor would you say is most guilty of the perpetration of cliches?

A: Hel-LO??? Let me run these by you: He brought his A-game. He has to step up. A warrior. At this level. X's and O's. A player's coach. They are struggling. A go-to guy. Let the game come to him. Stay within himself. Wake-up call. Gut check. In the zone. Feeling it. Got all of it. Lighting it up. Great tools. A stud.

Q: Oh, I see, you're talking about sports. I love it when they say, "He came to play." What else would he have come for?

A: That is so over. Stick a fork in it.

Q: Sarcasm does not become you, Mr. Arbuthnot.

A: My bad -- I didn't mean to be snarky. Btw, not to play the race card, but the fact of the matter is that the new new thing in cliches, if you will, would have to be homeboy wannabes who try to talk the talk.

Q: Can you give me a frinstance?

A: You go, girlfriend. Back in the day, we had it going on. It was old school in the 'hood -- we were keeping it real. Don't diss that playa -- show him some love, or I'll hit you upside the head. Yo, what it is, kna-mean?

Q: You don't think that appropriating the vernacular allows the language to regenerate itself?

A: Please.

Q: What about the business world?

A: Don't even go there. From the bricks and mortars to Silicon Alley, it's the same old same old. The stretch goal du jour is re-engineering result-driven, on-demand, top-down (and bottom-up) global systems, growing the bandwidth and the brand, leveraging the knowledge base, and fast-tracking proactive, strategic, and backward-compatible multitasking -- all without reinventing the wheel. Are we on the same page?

Q: To be sure. Mr. Arbuthnot, permit me to, as they say, cut to the chase. What, exactly, is wrong with cliches? After all, they wouldn't have become cliches if they weren't very good at communicating certain ideas. So why do the language police get all hot and bothered about them?

A: So you want to open up that can of worms, do you? You're moving the goal posts -- all this heavy lifting wasn't in the job description. But not to worry. I'm okay with taking one for the team. This might help some gravitas rub off on me, too.

But I digress. I'm going to go ahead and dumb down the back story. When you reference cliches, the poster boy -- the 800-pound Dead White Male, as it were -- is the fabulous George Orwell, the late, great iconic pundit. In his canonical text "Politics and the English Language" (which is still state of the art, imho) Orwell famously spin-doctored the issue in terms of the life span of figures of speech. Take "Achilles' heel" (please). The first writer to use this phrase to mean a person's or institution's weak point, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1810, and he was creating a fresh metaphor. Orwell's response to the Cole-ster -- and to anyone expressing an idea in an original, clever, striking, unexpected, vivid and/or amusing way, like the person who coined Silicon Valley, or Silicon Alley, or who first said "cut to the chase" about a noncinematic subject, or even who first applied quotes from commercials, Seinfeld, or Saturday Night Live in other contexts -- would be, "You da man."

After a long while, a popular figure of speech becomes a dead metaphor, which means it "has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness." I.e., it's all good. This is certainly true of Achilles' heel, and probably also of a more recent coinage like Silicon Valley, which can be excused for another reason: It effectively describes an entity for which there is no other word or brief phrase.

The trouble is in between. For a century or so, Achilles' heel was a trite, hackneyed, pawed-over catch phrase -- and these are what we talk about when we talk about cliches. Orwell described the villain of the piece as "the huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves."

Word, that was the money shot. I'm running late, and my gut feeling is that pretty soon I'm going to start channeling William Safire.

Q: Fine, fine. You've been most helpful. Thank you for speaking with us, Mr. Arbuthnot.

A: Thank you. Have a good one.

Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (Scribner, 2000). [from the Chronicle of Higher Education]