Cliches are the currency of the English language

That 'old lush', the English language, loves all our abuse. Picture: Getty Images
That 'old lush', the English language, loves all our abuse. Picture: Getty Images

I'M AWARE "all that glisters (as opposed to "glitters") is not gold" [1*] but ignorant when gilding my lilies.

For years, I've applied the term when wanting to make a bad situation seem a little better.

This is, of course, wildly incorrect, the proper meaning of "gild the lily" [2] is to try and "improve something that's already beautiful or excellent".

As we've become so accustomed, the origin of this particular saying (and the glisters one) is Shakespearean.

In The Life and Death of King John, he wrote: "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet ... To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, Is wasteful and ridiculous excess".

So, rather ridiculously myself, not only have I been misinterpreting the meaning of the phrase all this time, I've been misquoting its source, too.

I suppose what I've been groping for is "sugarcoat" or "downplay"; prosaic and less mellifluous but at least fitting.

So, a few years back, after running a chainsaw into my knee, I should have told my horrified wife, as she sopped up all that blood: "No, I'm not sugarcoating it [3]... it's just a scratch [4] ... so very cold [5] ... moving to the light now [6] ..."

It might be despised by anyone younger than 40, but Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 irony-free exaltation of entitled baby boomers, The Big Chill, still offers many relevant exchanges for someone of my vintage [7], a favourite being when Jeff Goldblum insists regular rationalisations are "more important than sex".

"Ah, come on, nothing's more important than sex," Tom Berenger replies as his manchild actor prepares to bed JoBeth Williams' desperate housewife, who's just ditched her dowdy, albeit dedicated, husband for the prospect of a dirty weekend [8] with an old flame [9] in a puffer jacket.

"Oh, yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalisation?"

To me, the same could be said of clichés.

I fear I'd be left curled up in the foetal position [10] should I not be able to scatter-gun [11] my supply of hackneyed sayings [12] around the joint [13] with gay abandon [14].

Having a quiver of thoughtless phraseology at your disposal [15] seems almost like a form of sociological armour, something to shield you from the emotional drain [16] of engaging in real, potentially enriching dialogue.

A life in newspapers, much of it writing headlines, means I'm a sucker [17] for easily identifiable clichés, aphorisms, platitudes, maxims and one-stop-shop [18] turns of phrase [19] and, some days, I'm certain I've gone from dawn to dusk [20] without having said anything remotely original, as if a chitchatting parrot caged for eternity in the back seat of a cosmic taxi.

"Could be worse," [21] I tell my wife as we discuss this week's big-ticket [22] problem.

"Life isn't fair," [23] our eldest daughter is regretfully informed [24] as she laments the injustice of maths being introduced into her once-carefree existence [25].

"Slow and steady wins the race," [26] I say to her younger, overachieving sister.

"Sit down, shut up and you might just learn something," [27] their little brother cops several times a day.

My nine-year-old self was frighteningly similar to my garrulous son and his exasperated grandfather's refrain in the face of his own filial torment was "brain in high gear, mouth in low gear", something I'd never heard before, nor have I since, hardly surprising considering this clunky DIY proverb - no doubt a butchered version of some legitimate saying - is so irritating in itself, so aurally unpleasant and possibly even dangerous, no sensible 21st century parent would ever adopt it for their own disciplinary purposes.

It's the kind of creepy outburst guaranteed to raise a red flag [28] on the sidelines of Saturday morning soccer.

You there! Boy! Brain in high gear, mouth in low gear! ... why yes, I am that child's legal guardian ... you want take my photo? Sure, why not? Cheese!

And that's the trouble with the English language, we fiddle with it for our own devices [29], slice and dice [30] it; adorn it, smother it, and, what's worse, the masochistic old lush [31] seems to enjoy all the abuse.

English can't be wrestled to the ground [32] and told to stop! That's enough! No more words, no more dictionary updates, no more urbanisations, modernisations, abbreviations, emojifications ... English is the linguistic equivalent of one of those crabs which decorates itself with any piece of rubbish until it resembles the unsightly germ that will unleash the next pandemic.

Perhaps that's another reason I default to clichés; they can be quickly erected as discursive scaffolding to underpin at least some form of understanding between interlocutors, even if one of them is an argot-bending, text-addled teenager devoid of all multisyllabic faculties. In fact, it's when exposed to Gen-Z English-speakers (if that's not being overly generous), it's apparent just how different the language of tomorrow is destined to become.

As detailed in Cynthia Barrett's 2019 book, Three Sheets to the Wind: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions, the dogged existence of seafaring jargon in modern communication is testament to the primacy of economic expansion and empire-building [33] via the oceans some 200 years ago.

Taking a leaf from Barrett's book [34], it's fascinating to ponder the English language of 2221, given the market influences by which it will be moulded between now and then. Instead of "battening down the hatches" [35], will we be "hiding all the bitcoins"? Instead of being "in the doldrums" [36] will we be "out of data"?

If we are plotting such an uninspired course [37] for the good ship [38] Conversation, I feel quite proud to be a spouter of well-worn [39] clichés because once those of us, who say so much without saying anything at all, are gone, so too will a heritage-value verbal cryptocurrency which makes navigating the choppy waters [40] of society so much easier.

And, given this conservator role, we should even be looking farther afield [41] than our own backyard [42] before other cultures' clichés are similarly consigned to the dustbin of history [43]. This way, we'll be happily avoiding the point [44] and subduing the dogs of war [45] by shooting the breeze [46] from pole to pole [47] for many years to come [48] with our diplomatic small talk [49].

Or, as the Dutch, put it: talking about little cows and little calves [50].

*Cliché count.

  • B. R. Doherty is a regular columnist.
This story Preserving those terms of endearment first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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