At the end of the day, sometimes you’ve just got to think inside the boxby Hephzibah Anderson / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
Blue-sky thinking: banality or ancient wisdom? (photo: images.com/Corbis)
In the past week, I have taken a rain check, stared down the elephant in the room, and been my own worst enemy in more ways than one.
I am not proud. As Nigel Fountain, author of a new book Clichés: Avoid Them Like the Plague (Michael O’Mara), would tell me, I am guilty of repetition, banality and confirmation of the expected.
In my defence, it’s been a week of extremes. Or do I mean two halves? It began in New York City just in time for Hurricane Sandy and ended with a very, very long train ride down to Florida to meet Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee companion of the 1980s. Midway through, I found myself on a late night call with a writer friend. He was taking things a day at a time, I was going back to the drawing board. Then we heard ourselves. Did it make us only more clichéd that we were fretting so much about using them? Are there some clichés that are simply unavoidable?
The word itself originates in mid-19th century France, where printers would assemble time-saving blocks from the most commonly used word combinations. Fountain hews to that broad definition, and his A-Z of shame embraces buzz-words and bromides as well as adages, truisms and idioms. From “affluent society” to “zero-sum game” they are all, he argues, either redundant, vacuous or overused to the point of meaninglessness.
Many seem to be derived from the sporting world, which has moved the goal posts, given us the level playing field, and “run with” plenty. Politicians have engaged in dirty tricks and spent more time with their families, while MBA holders have come up with the scientifically wobbly concept of corporate DNA. The inclusion of Kafkaesque proves that artsier types are not immune to cliché coinage (it was referred to as “the K-word” by the chair of a literature prize I once helped judge).
But as I delved further into the book and my blush faded, I discovered a new respect for certain clichés. I began to appreciate their sturdy truthfulness and comforting ancientness. You’d guess correctly that the poisoned chalice is Shakespearean (Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii), but I had no idea that “better late than never,” a phrase I use almost daily, was first inscribed by…