Cliches are exhausting. Writer Lawrence Wright, while looking back at George Orwell’s career in 2006, said this:
“Cliches, like cockroaches in the cupboard, quickly infest a careless mind. I constantly struggle with the prefabricated phrases that substitute for simple, clear prose. We are still plagued by toe the line, stand shoulder to shoulder with, no axe to grind — meaningless images that every reader subconsciously acknowledges represent the opposite of real thought .”
The only time a cliche or other idiom does much for me is when it is literalized:
- For example, telling someone to take it down a notch and then having him complying by actually lowering a boat anchor, or adjusting a volume knob.
- Or, I sometimes think of that scene from Mrs. Doubtfire in which the titular character, played by Robin Williams, when asked about the fate of her fictional deceased ex-husband, says that he was “very fond of the drink,” leading Sally Field’s character to think that he had been an alcoholic, only to have Doubtfire follow up with “it was the drink that killed him” (drunk driving, perhaps?) to reinforce the suspicion and then top the tale off by saying that he was hit by a Guinness truck. It really was the drink that killed him.
Today I came across a really good example of this phenomenon, albeit with a single word rather than a phrase. My spouse told me that one of his relatives had once gone out for a walk while visiting the U.S.. She wasn’t familiar with the area or its weather and as such she didn’t know that there was a tornado warning in effect.
With winds speeding up by the hour, she eventually found it hard to maintain her course. The solution? She literally had to hug a tree for support. So now whenever I hear someone disparagingly call an environmentalist a “treehugger,” I’ll have to laugh and think of that blustery day.