Giving cliches short shrift
They're a crime against language, and that's 'the bottom line'
Robert Fulford
National Post

No one ever learns precisely how such things work, but at some moment around 1980, "the bottom line" slipped from its mooring in financial language and set sail on the seas of everyday English. It ceased to indicate simply the profit or loss of a company, given on the last line of a financial statement, and instead came to mean (as the Oxford English Dictionary now acknowledges) "the crux of the argument." Soon people found they could use it while discussing home decoration, Woody Allen's movies or a cure for cocaine addiction.

When I first heard someone mention "the bottom line" in a context distant from business, I assumed this was a passing fad. How could I have guessed that it would become the No. 1 cliche of our time?

Its status was certified by Sanders LaMont of the Sacramento Bee, who conducted a cliche hunt through the electronic files of his newspaper. He assembled a list of terms made stale and irksome by overuse and then determined how many times each of them had appeared in the Bee during five years. "The bottom line" came first by a long way, with 2,638 appearances, more than one a day.

Following LaMont's example, I've pursued (with the help of Scott Maniquet in the National Post library) certain familiar phrases through two years of archives at the Post and The Globe and Mail. I wish I could report that "the bottom line" is disappearing. Failing that, I would be pleased to say that we Canadians use it less than Californians. Alas, neither statement would be true. In fact, our survey suggests "the bottom line" is growing more popular, and that Canadians use it more promiscuously than Californians. In two years, from spring 2000 to spring 2002, the Globe employed "the bottom line" 1,842 times, the Post 1,522 times.

On cliches, George Orwell took a typically severe line: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print." All very well for him to say, but wasn't he, uh, setting the bar rather high? He was a journalist, the greatest of the 20th century, but how many times did an editor say to him, at 7:20 p.m., "We need it by eight o'clock or we don't need it?" I love Orwell, but his advice should be seen in the same light as the Ten Commandments: Mostly admirable in theory, definitely worth bearing in mind, but unlikely to be entirely achieved in practice.

Writing well, or even acceptably, involves struggle more than axioms. Martin Amis called his recent collection of literary essays The War Against Cliche. To write, as he says, means campaigning against cliche: "Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart." This involves far more than taste. Cliches deaden prose but also deaden information, discussion, and the people who use them. They limit and enclose thought, forcing it down predetermined channels.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and politician, put it beautifully: "The cliche organizes life; it expropriates people's identity; it becomes ruler, defence lawyer, judge, and the law."

In 1982, William Safire, in his language column for The New York Times, invented an excellent name for a specialized and temporary cliche, "voguism." He defined it as "a word or phrase in fashion, used by writers who are with-it and then repeated endlessly by politicians and public intellectuals unable to assert their relevance without it." He recently cited two examples, "state of the art" (big in the 1980s) and "at the end of the day" (a favourite in the 1990s). We could add "window of opportunity," which I believe reached its peak around 1990. I sense "poster child" also waning, but "thinking outside the box" may still have a future.

In journalism, and in the language spoken on TV political panels, a voguism becomes, for a while, an essential part of life. People can't avoid it and don't want to. They think it implies intelligence and powers of discernment.

But a voguism, unlike a cliche, has the good grace to vanish, often overnight. One day someone like Sam Donaldson begins to utter it, stops, changes his mind, and -- poof! -- it's gone. The next person to use it is greeted with, at best, an indulgent smile. When I was a sports writer, some few years ago (Joe DiMaggio was still playing, to give you an idea), we scribes often introduced our most profound comments with the words, "in the final analysis." Now, I knew that a cliche was a crime against language, but I didn't know I was committing it. One day I overheard an editor making fun of another writer for those very words; I have not used them since.

Canada's two national newspapers differ only a little in their use of cliches. The Globe employed the phrase "critics say" 525 times during two years, the Post 460. On the other hand, we seem to like "world-class" better than they do (574 to 507) and we are a bit infatuated with "cutting edge" (451 to the Globe's 339). On "paradigm," a single word with cliche-level popularity, the two papers are almost tied (Post: 194, Globe: 191). The Globe has a weakness for "short shrift," which it used 84 times to our 56. It's a cliche that long ago lost literal meaning, for most readers. Shrift is the act of confession; "short shrift" means the brief time with a priest that a cruel jailer will allow a prisoner condemned to die. Among literal uses of it, the OED shows nothing later than 1889.

Cyril Connolly, an English critic and friend of Orwell's, compared the English language to a stream in which a few patient anglers sit waiting while, up river, pollution is dumped in by Fleet Street and the BBC. That was 58 years ago, and not much has changed.

In the final analysis, perhaps the authors of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage provided the best definition of cliches: "They are all things to all men. Many are beneath contempt, but some are all to the good; they lend a helping hand and add insult to injury."

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