Word Matters Podcast

Hackneyed Phrases, Both Old and New

Word Matters, episode 98

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Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: the overused phrases we were formerly told to avoid. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: Writing advice often includes hackneyed phrases we're supposed to avoid. This is not new, as Ammon explains.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that anybody who is learning writing technique, or has tried learning how to write, or is writing with any editorial oversight hears, is that there are certain words and phrases particularly that one should avoid because they are so overused as to have become cliches. We call them "hackneyed" phrases. And I think we all carry around a list of these things that we feel like, "Oh yeah, people always say that." And it's just kind of boring. Things like, "at the end of the day," or "kick the can down the road," or "take this to the next level." Do either of you have phrases that you feel like you try to avoid based on overuse?

Emily Brewster: I don't really like "take it to the next level." I think that’s one that I probably try to avoid in general.

Peter Sokolowski: I think I probably avoid as many as I can. There's one that I particularly hate, which is "all that jazz." I just don't like it. But the fact is, the language is full of them, and some of them are distracting because they're sort of isolatable as a little cliche, as Ammon said. You want to keep the reader's ideas with your ideas and not on some sort of trite throwaway idiom.

Emily Brewster: Right. On the other hand, there are plenty that are warned against that don't bother me at all.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. And I agree with that, too.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. And one of the things that I found really fascinating about this, and this came up for me when I was looking through the early edition of Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which was one of the main usage guides of the 20th century. It was one of the, though not the first, dictionary of usage in which, it's all these aspects of language that he has very strongly held feelings on, and they're arranged alphabetically.

Emily Brewster: And this was published in 1926, is that right?

Ammon Shea: Yeah, 1926.

Emily Brewster: Okay.

Ammon Shea: The first edition. It's gone through a number of editions. It's been redone a number of times, and as far as usage guides go, it is not the worst. It is far better than Strunk & White. Although, as I think we'll see, it does have some things that are either curiously dated, and he has a section on hackneyed phrases. And hackneyed means, of course, “lacking in freshness or originality.” So, he has a number of phrases that he cautions against using, like "my better half" or "too funny for words," Those are known to us and we might avoid them, but what's interesting is that most of the things that he considers hackneyed phrases, I was not familiar with. So "curses not loud, but deep," is a phrase to avoid because of overuse. "Snapper up of unconsidered trifles”—stay clear of that one. "Hinc illae lacrimae," which is a Latin quotation from Terrence, meaning "hence those tears," or translated also as "that is what those tears were for."

Emily Brewster: Yeah. That one really irks me too.

Ammon Shea: You can't open up the New York Times without seeing it, like, three times on the first page. These were things that in 1926 were considered overused, to the point of they should be avoided. When I saw that, I then thought, "We should see what other phrases were considered similarly overused about that time." And apparently a lot of the early writing guides used to warn writers against things like this. And in 1897, Frederic Knowles had a book of practical hints for young writers [Practical Hints for Young Writers, Readers and Book Buyers]. And he said, you should not use "the cup that cheers, but not inebriates," which was a euphemism for tea, and "agitate the tinted ambulator." You shouldn't say that you should say "ring the bell," and you should not use the phrase "chief cook and bottle washer," which I think is a little more common in the UK than here.

Peter Sokolowski: But that one I've heard. Almost everything else that you've said I hadn't heard of before.

Ammon Shea: I have heard of "chief cook and bottle washer," but I think that it has sufficiently fallen out of favor that you can use it now without being worried that it's a cliche. In 1917, there was a book called The Study and Practice of Writing English. And they warned, two authors, Margaret Ashman and Gerhard Loomer, they said, you should not use the following phrases, “succulent bivalve.”

Peter Sokolowski: What?

Ammon Shea: I know. This is going to really cramp your writing style, Peter, now that you can no longer say "succulent bivalve."

Emily Brewster: A succulent bivalve is just like a really nice clam on the half shell. Like what? What?

Ammon Shea: See, that's what's so great is that all of these are presented without any explanation whatsoever, presumably because they were so well known that they needed no explanation.

Emily Brewster: So it could have been a term of endearment or a term of disparagement.

Ammon Shea: Right? It could have been "my dear little succulent bivalve, or "you vile succulent bivalve, you." We don't know. "The dreamy mazes of the waltz”—shouldn't say that. "A distinguished nimrod," which I think is a great one because nimrod of course was the biblical term for a mighty hunter. And because of its appearance in a Bugs Bunny episode, in which he refers to, I believe Elmer Fudd as a “mighty nimrod,” it kind of segued to becoming an insult. We can blame Bugs Bunny for that semantic drift, there.

Emily Brewster: That's such an interesting case. Now did this warning come before or after the Bugs Bunny cartoon?

Ammon Shea: This was well before the Bugs Bunny cartoon. This was when Nimrod was still a nimrod in the old sense. "Driving like Jehu" was another one to avoid. Another biblical term, Jehu was a furious chariot driver. And in the 19th century, particularly among I think UK collegiate slang, Jehu was used for somebody who drove too fast or recklessly. That one's kind of fallen by the wayside, so you're free to use that one I think, now, as well.

Peter Sokolowski: There's no better evidence of language change than the fashions that simply come and go— except "chief cook and bottle washer," which honestly is useful as a fixed phrase, because it indicates that this person performs many functions in this business. It also shows a prescriptive nature of the motivations of many people who are writing usage guides.

Emily Brewster: I can imagine that if I saw these phrases regularly in my writing, they might certainly stick out. They really very effectively paint a picture, but they seem so much more interesting than the hackneyed phrases that you began with, Ammon. Like "in this day and age," and "at the end of the day." Those are the kinds of phrases that I edit out of my own writing when I am trying to create polished writing, because they're not interesting and they are just common phrases. And so finding a more interesting way to say something is better than to use this just frequently repeated phrase. But the ones that you are raising with us now are just beautiful.

Ammon Shea: It's interesting because I think you hit upon an interesting point there, which is that, I think, a hundred years ago or so, when these were being castigated or advised against, what they considered to be hackneyed phrases were far more metaphorical—are literary allusions. And the ones that we're talking about today, "at the end of the day" or "kick the can down the road," are just metaphorical. It's just, it's not perhaps as literary or as biblical, it has a different feel. It could just be that it's the lack of familiarity that makes these things seem more interesting. It's hard to say.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. More on the phrases we're all supposed to avoid ahead. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code MATTERS at checkout that's matters, M A T T E R S at shop.merriam-webster.com

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: More succulent bivalves ahead.

Ammon Shea: We were talking about George Orwell and his “Politics and the English Language,” and I was reminded that he, in that essay, also talked about some expressions. He said “silly words and expressions.” He was talking about how they can disappear through the conscious action of a minority. And he said, two recent examples are "explore every avenue" and "leave no stone unturned," which were “killed by the jeers of a few journalists.” Of course they were not killed by the jeers of a few journalists. They were very healthy. After reading this essay, I went back and looked at some corpora and found that the use of these phrases actually increased almost exponentially in the decades following the publication of his essay. They're still with us today. And I think many people would consider "explore every avenue" and "leave no stone unturned" as hackneyed phrases. So the attraction is not just that they've been with us since the mid, early 20th century. There is something different about these other ones, Emily, and I can't quite put my finger on it.

Peter Sokolowski: I think a big part of it is that they're so novel to our ears. I also think that fluent speech is made up of a combination of predictable chunks and unpredictable spontaneous language production. Because if you only speak in predictable chunks, you sound like a robot, but if you only speak in spontaneous production, you sound like a non-native speaker. You sound like someone who has learned from a book and not from life, from any kind of context. And we need these things. We need these chunks.

Emily Brewster: The New York Times used to have a column called “Words We Love Too Much” that focused on some hackneyed phrases. A few of them are evocative in the way that some of these older ones are: "the elephant in the room."

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, there we go.

Emily Brewster: That is a very familiar phrase. You're not going to surprise your reader by referring to "the elephant in the room." One can imagine someone writing a book on usage, telling you to avoid the phrase "the elephant in the room." And yet, if it were not familiar, it does the job pretty well.

Ammon Shea: And also I could see, a hundred years hence, somebody looking back at the writing of this time and coming across an admonition to avoid "the elephant in the room," and saying, "man, ‘the elephant in the room’—that is great. What's the problem with that? I'm going to start using that. So evocative and colorful." I think that it is the breadth of time between the use and the coming across it. As you said, Emily, it gives it this freshness.

Peter Sokolowski: I think there's something important about exposure and taste. If you're a good writer and you're trying to convey something specific, you may employ one of these deliberately because that gets either the right tone or is the way your character would express themselves. At the same time, idioms are a huge and fascinating part of our language. And it's kind of easy to take pot shots at them.

Ammon Shea: When was the Times inveighing against "elephant in the room?" And what else did they caution against?

Emily Brewster: I believe this column ran for a few years, but the examples I have are from a 2012 edition of the column. And they also warn against the phrase "air their dirty laundry" and "heavy as lead" and "light as a feather."

Ammon Shea: I can see all of these coming back in a hundred years.

Emily Brewster: Absolutely. Also, "getting a foot in the door." I really like that one. Yes, it can be overused, but if you get your foot in the door—the action conveyed by the phrase is so effective.

Peter Sokolowski: It sounds like that column is journalists speaking to journalists, right? Because that can become a closed circuit, of a kind. And some of them make me think of the recency illusion. If it's a phrase that you have decided bothers you, you're going to start to notice it every time it's used, every time you encounter it, and it'll rub you the wrong way. And that makes it seem both more common and more annoying.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Certainly. Also, if we were constantly seeing these phrases used in advertisements, if we see them constantly in news articles, then yes, they stand out as being uninteresting. As kind of a cheap and easy way to communicate something. Another one mentioned here is "bitter pill." And I feel like that one is so efficient. It seems in a different category from "elephant in the room." In my mind, it's really such a set phrase.

Ammon Shea: Essentially, most of these are from about a hundred years ago. The hackneyed phrases that we were discussing earlier. And as Peter said, it does a great job of demonstrating how language changes. And as a way of kind of wrapping this up, what I also wanted to bring up was in 2016, I looked at a 1916 dictionary that we published. One of our Collegiate Dictionaries. And I looked at all the words that we listed as slang in that dictionary. And there were words like co-ed, awful, grouchy, jinx, measly, pub, root for, fluke, fan, doctor in the sense of "to tamper with." And none of these are currently listed as slang. But a hundred years ago they were fresh. They were new. They were the language of “kids these days.” And now, almost immediately, they just became words. Just boring, pedestrian words. I know that some people like to still complain about awful, but not because it's slang. They like to complain about it for other reasons.

Ammon Shea: So it's kind of like, the whole language is moving in a circle. And the hackneyed phrases, the succulent bivalves of the world, are becoming fresh again. And the new words, the slang like awful and bootleg, bouncer, and cahoots, are just becoming commonplace words.

Peter Sokolowski: One thing's really sure: you never want to eat old succulent bivalves.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and me. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster and New England Public Media.

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