January 16, 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 Picks

"In a bid to create new space for green industries and fossil-free energy production, greater Copenhagen wants to build an entirely new business and infrastructure district on the city’s southwestern edge."

Donald Trump ran for president saying that he would be a shrewd businessman with a propensity for making deals. Why, then, are we in the longest government shutdown on record?

"There isn’t an Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the way that many outsiders seem to think... In the Israeli view, no peacemaker can bring the two sides together because there aren’t just two sides. There are many, many sides."

"I've always wondered what fans see in her. After debating with a friend about her “merits” for over half a decade now, I thought I had found the one thing that could probably change my opinion of the pop star: the Reputation tour documentary..."

"Even if the economy is on a roll, many Americans aren’t feeling the benefit... In fact, when adjusted for cost of living increases, real wages actually declined 1.3% since the end of 2017, PayScale found."

"Cutting ties with Facebook would mean consciously cutting ties with my own community, and I can't bring myself to do it. When I asked my connections on Facebook why they were staying, their answers were very similar to mine..."

Fear of the news; fear of climate change, fear of touch screens... these New Yorker cartoons portray the modern phobias that are driving us crazy.

"Texts replaced authors as the privileged objects of scholarly knowledge, and the performance of critical operations on texts became essential to the scholar’s identity."

"When I speak to parents’ groups about kids who are addicted to Fortnite and other video games, I tell them that it is the parents’ job to limit, govern and guide their kids’ use of video games..."

"Startups like Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce say they're helping to reduce food waste in America. Critics say they're deceiving their customers and making the problem worse."

"Scholars are now interested in whether having a vocabulary item for a concept influences thought in domains far from language, such as visual perception."

"The much-documented anti-Semitism of the British Labor party leader is no accident... Jeremy Corbyn reminds us that anti-Semitism is not just an irrational hatred, harbored by madmen at the fringes of British society."