June 26, 2019

A Cliche in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush

“”Make it new,” urged the poet Ezra Pound early in the twentieth century. He wanted writers to abandon vague, overfamiliar modes of expression and to explore fresh territories of speech. Pound’s advice had a lasting influence on the language used by poets. Soon, the quest for the new became a dominant impulse in modernist literature, as it already was in painting, sculpture, and classical music. “The sentence should be arbitrary,” Gertrude Stein declared in How to Write. “A paragraph such as silly.” But readers were skeptical from the outset.

Most of us don’t seek out a new form of language, and if we happen to come across arbitrary sentences or silly paragraphs, we’re less than thrilled about it. The old idioms work just fine. We know what they mean. Even if I store food in cartons in the fridge, I don’t “keep all my eggs in one basket.” Even if you never cook for yourself, you sometimes “put it on the back burner.”

Does this mean that old idioms are inevitably clichéd?

Not in the least. What counts is not the age of an idiom but the context that surrounds it and the way it’s expressed. Compelling idioms have the power to keep language real. Any smart adaptation of a familiar expression can deliver a small jolt of surprise to readers or listeners. Warning against consumers-debt addiction in the Guardian in September 2017, Zoe Williams wrote, “We don’t need any ailing canaries to tell us there’s a gas leak: we need to start asking how to escape this mine.” By using the old image of a coal-mine canary in an article about the crushing weight of debt, Williams made her argument come alive.”

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