There are rich pickings in the land of the cliché. Our inherent laziness permits us to insert them frequently and pointlessly to make our writing appear richer, or at least longer. Orin Hargraves blames the news media for spreading them ubiquitously. He thinks that the rise of blogs and the decline of newspapers have meant the disappearance of editors. Everyone publishes without real oversight, and clichés fester and bloom in that environment, because they are easy out. Even when they don’t work or make sense. Basically, Hargraves thinks they make sentences less concise and therefore less authoritative.
Journalism boasts more clichés per unit of text than any other source. Many are the near exclusive property of the news media. He cites bone of contention, commanding lead, corridors of power, end of an era, fevered speculation, dyed in the wool, not immediately clear, deal a fatal blow, fuel speculation, grip the nation, sound the death knell, spearheading, swept to power, usher in a new era, and rich tapestry, among others, as rarely or never appearing in civil conversation.
He can make such claims because of the research tool at his disposal. Hargraves tapped the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), a massive database of nearly everything published in English. It contains upwards of 2.5 billion instances of words in context, including radio, tv and internet. Software allowed him to search not just clichés themselves, but their environments: what words precede or follow, the syntax they represent, and their frequency, compared to others, compared to non clichés, compared to just about anything in the OEC. It showed him usage patterns, quantity, genres, and the example itself, from which he populated this book. It makes for some fascinating discoveries, such as date of first use, as well as some laughs. Elephant in the room is used more often in the OEC than there are elephants in Africa, by about 20:1, for example. I particularly enjoyed the clichés that made no sense themselves, such as meteoric rise, considering that meteors don’t rise, they fall. But we never see the phrase meteoric fall, so what good is it?
It also allows Hargraves to give 2-4 examples of the each cliché in use. He gets to examine the context, accuracy and effect of their deployment, and determine just how useless the cliché is. This is actually important, because by his definition, if the phrase has any real use at all, it’s not a cliché. His evaluation: “Clichés are the sterile offspring of a mind that is not engaged in creativity, and following the advice of an authority is surely the opposite of creativity.”
Hargraves divides clichés by their syntactic placement, as noun replacements, adjectives, adverbs or predicates. What help this is he does not say. He proposes no use for it. I personally found his segregating of clichés this way of no practical use. Syntax is an innate function, and native speakers automatically place clichés in their sentences correctly. I think it would have been far more useful to collect them by genre or characteristic.
-There are the news media clichés, above.
-There are redundant clichés, such as each and every, various and sundry, in actual fact, over and above, close proximity, categorically deny, in and of itself, null and void, and for all intents and purposes.
-There are archaic and obsolete word clichés, such as beyond the pale, down the pike, wend your way, every nook and cranny, by and large and emblazoned on, none of which today’s speakers can define.
-There clichés that are so useless, people actually use them incorrectly, and few notice.
Isolated and collected like this, they become ever more insulting to read about. Categorizing them this way drives home their redundancy, verbosity and empty filler nature, and might help towards goal of making people of aware of them, and of avoiding them.
It’s Been Said Before is a reference work, not a dictionary. Hargraves argues that he has included only phrases he considers clichés, while some readers might consider others for membership. That there is room for disagreement opens the door to conscious-raising even wider. I have my own test. “As opposed to” turns out to be a decent test of whether or not a cliché makes any sense. If there is no other possibility (see meteoric rise, above), then the phrase is not falsifiable/deniable, as they say in science.
It’s not perfect, but I don’t need to check dictionaries and reference books to know if I’m barking up the wrong tree, as it were.