March 25, 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.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"China’s Hydrogen economy Is coming: The world’s electric-vehicle king is seeking leadership in fuel cells, too. Investors are probably right to be excited."

"It would be the height of naivete to believe the book is closed. Democrats on Capitol Hill are not just going to take the attorney general's conclusions and move on to new things."

"Netanyahu has brazenly allied himself with Trump’s Administration and his family (including the cryptic peace negotiator, Jared Kushner, whose family he has known for years), as well as with the Republican Party and Republican funders..."

"Us is stranger than Get Out, with deeper philosophical undercurrents flowing through it. The rabbit that greets you at the movie’s start is an invitation. Will you follow, like Alice in her Wonderland?"

"Democrats and Republicans seem to have irreconcilable views on economics, but on one point they agree: Small business is better than big."

"Sanctuary, a digital astrology start-up backed by $1.5 million in venture capital, made the considered decision to launch its service on Wednesday — the dawn of the new astrological year, when Pisces gives way to Aries in the astral cycle."

"It is a Vessel for the depths of architectural cynicism, of form without ideology and without substance: an architectural practice that puts the commodifiable image above all else, including the social good..."

"Apartment Therapy posted a photo to Instagram of a bookshelf with the spines facing inward, and the dramatic response — dozens of users denouncing the trend as anti-intellectual, even comparing it to book-burning ..."

"Perhaps it is time to add parenting to the growing list of “replacement religions” competing for our attention and currency these days, a list that already includes workism and politics."

"Only a fraction of the world’s yeast species have been discovered. The ones still out there could revolutionize health care, green energy, and beer."

"We’ve recently fixated on expunging “fake news” but the medical world also has its charlatans. The snake-oil salespeople, masquerading as health professionals, are naturopaths."

"...should we continue to teach thinkers like Kant, Voltaire and Hume without mention of the harmful prejudices they helped legitimize?"