March 25, 2004

Irritating cliches? Get a life

The Plain English Campaign is not just an amiable bunch of British eccentrics, says Mark (here); they are humorless hypocrites, "short on judgment, common sense and consistency", and their pronouncements, themselves laden with clichés, are not to be taken seriously. I agree, of course. Don't just listen to me about the Campaign's indefensible citation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for an allegedly confusing pronouncement; listen to The Economist , which loves to mock Americans and word-manglers, but agreed with me on this.)

The Campaign's list of the most irritating clichés in the English language does include some clichéd phrases that I can imagine people being irritated by. Their number one, the (largely British) phrase at the end of the day — which I understand to have a meaning somewhere in the same region as after all, all in all, the bottom line is, and when the chips are down — may shock people by its complete bleaching away of temporal meaning. As I understand it, users of this phrase would see nothing at all peculiar in a sentence like It's no good saving money on heating if it means having a cold bedroom, because at the end of the day, you've got to get up in the morning.

The second-ranked at this moment in time might annoy people by being a six-syllable substitute for the monosyllabic now — though this has happened before: Colonel Potter in the TV series MASH used to say WW2, a seven-syllable abbreviation for the three-syllable full-length version World War Two.

However, some of the other items on the list are surely just incorrectly classified: as I understand what a cliché is, many of these aren't clichés at all. They're just words some people have taken an irrational dislike to. That's very different. A few examples follow:

  • The adverb absolutely.
  • The adjective awesome.
  • The adverb basically.
  • The noun basis.
  • The adverb literally.
  • The adjective ongoing.
  • The verb prioritize.

A cliché is a trite, hackneyed, stereotyped, or threadbare phrase or expression: spoiled from long familiarity, worn out from over-use, no longer fresh. But if the Plain English Campaign is going to claim the right to say that about individual words that its correspondents suddenly take a disfancy to, surely most of the words found in smaller dictionaries will have to go. Many of the words we use -- like every single one of the words in this sentence -- have been around and in constant use for several hundred years. What on earth is the Plain English Campaign suggesting we should do with its list of pet hates? Is it recommending word taboos on the basis of voting out, a kind of lexical Survivor?

And what is getting the poor loser words voted off the island? Why, for instance, should a persistent problem be permitted to persist while the ongoing use of an ongoing problem is condemned? Of the two, persistent is the older, hence presumably the staler.

But the Campaign can't really be worried about staleness. Another of their picks is just one of the half-dozen uses of like. The unpopular use is of course the one where it is a hedge meaning something like "this may not be exactly the right word but it gives the general impression." I discussed it here, and later discovered that it is actually used by God. An odd choice indeed as a cliché: the one thing everyone agrees on is that it is fairly new in the language. I figured that was why it was hated so much. What's supposed to be wrong with these condemned items: are they too old or too new?

I don't understand these wordgripers and phrase disparagers. If I may borrow a phrase that genuinely is hackneyed and familiar (immortalized in William Shatner's wonderful Saturday Night Live Trekkies sketch and none the worse for its frequent affectionate requotation): people, get a life.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 25, 2004 10:45 AM