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The list of clichés and annoying phrases grows…

Some time ago I listed some phrases that had become such clichés that whenever I heard them, the annoyance they produced was sufficient to distract me from what the speaker was saying. Readers then added their own peeves.

Here is the current list of the phrases I hate and hope never to use. Feel free to point out whenever I use them unthinkingly. I will update the list periodically.

In any way, shape, or form
Speak truth to power
Last time I checked [when used in a sarcastic way]
Think outside the box
When the rubber meets the road
Hit the ground running
A perfect storm
Connect the dots
Light at the end of the tunnel
It is what it is
Throw under the bus
Mission-critical
stakeholders
Drink the Kool-Aid

Reinvent the wheel
To cut a long story short

Let’s cut to the chase

Beating around the bush
Read my lips
Low hanging fruit

Who moved my cheese?
Put a bug in his ear

Here are suggestions from blog readers that haven’t as yet crossed my personal annoyance threshold. Some of them, such as “Let’s do face time” and “My people will call your people” are things that I would never even think of using and personally never hear except when spoken in a facetious way, so I suspect they are common in a different work environment from mine.

Start with a clean slate
Going forward

Paradigm shift

Boys will be boys

Stand and deliver

By the numbers

It goes without saying

My two cents

Where I’m coming from

In my previous life
Let’s touch base

My people will call your people
Let’s do face time

Let’s take this offline

We’re opening a Pandora’s Box
Team player
I’m just saying…
For what it’s worth
Pull the trigger
Worth the wait
Best for last

This I promise you

Running in circles

I suspect that these lists will jolt the memories of readers who will come up with more.

Of course, some of these phrases are perfectly acceptable when used in a narrow context. It is when they are used indiscriminately or as filler that they become irritating. As George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.

Whenever I read this essay by Orwell, one of my favorites, it makes me feel guilty because I know that often I too fall into the trap of bunging in a ready-made phrase simply because it sounds good. It takes a lot vigilance and self-control to break that habit.

Comments

  1. Randomfactor says

    As a rule of thumb, I’ve found that anytime someone starts an argument with “Last time I checked,” they didn’t and you can can safely ignore whatever follows as either irrelevant or wrong.

    For what it’s worth, “as a rule of thumb” might well be banned too.

  2. Nomen Nescio says

    as a rule of thumb, you should not use your thumb as a rule. your lines will turn out crooked, and you may get splinters in it. (this was still true last time i checked. the splinters built character.)

  3. says

    Throw under the bus? Are you sure?

    I realize it’s used a lot, but it’s quite a vivid and handy way of saying “put all the blame on, in an unfair and treacherous way.” I’m afraid I kind of like it…

  4. Phledge says

    “I could care less.”

    Well, first off, if you could care less then why don’t you? It should be, “I couldn’t care less.” Second, why not just say, “I don’t care?”

    I’m with Ophelia on “thrown under the bus.” Maybe that’s because it happens to women/people of color/atheists so often…

  5. oldebabe says

    My currently favorite annoying words are `You know’ that people seem to be using more and more when in any type of ordinarily spoken conversation, sometimes several times in one sentence, and sometimes as a questioning inflection (but no wait for an answer, so obviously not a question). Well, I must not `know’, or I wouldn’t be listening to you. But if I already `know’, then why are you telling me?

    Or is this just a craze, the way the word `like’ was used? Grrr.

  6. Mano Singham says

    I guess my point is that however vivid and useful and descriptive a phrase might be, and you are right that this is one such phrase, when it is used too much it becomes jarring to my ears and I make a vow to never use it again.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    “The fact of the matter is…”
    .
    This implies that there is only one fact, and that the speaker is the only person in possession of it. Also, I find that in actual usage this phrase is more often followed by an opinion than a fact.

  8. Clyde says

    I have a problem with “deep pockets” and here’s why. The term, which characterizes someone who is generous with money, is actually a bastardization of an original concept which meant the exact opposite! As a 44 year veteran of the gaming industry, I’ve seen many sayings come and go. A couple of decades ago a new one popped up. If a person won big on the tables but failed to tip the dealers, he/she became branded as having “short arms and deep pockets” which, of course, means the person has difficulty reaching for a tip.
    I’m just saying… (oops).

  9. says

    “Irregardless”.

    And can we please stop with the feel-good euphemisms for disabilities? Specifically, the phrase “Special Needs”. Handicapped and disabled are perfectly good words, and aren’t offensive by any stretch of the imagination. Or if you want to go with “person-first” language (and use twice as many words to say the same damn thing) you can say “person with a disability”.

    Just, for the love of Carlin, please retire “Special Needs”!

  10. says

    “Politics and the English Language” is one of Orwell’s best essays, and has influenced me profoundly…although probably not as profoundly as I would like to think it has.

    As I recall, one of Orwell’s points is that a good, useful metaphor communicates a clear picture. A metaphor “dies” when the original clear picture becomes clouded or confused, and it becomes a prefabricated collection of words which is slotted into prose without thought: “The fascist octopus has sung its swan song” was one of Orwell’s illustrative examples, I think.

    On these grounds, I would vote to keep “Throw him under the bus” and “Drink the kool-aid”, at least for the present. When it comes to “Let’s throw it under the bus and then run it up the flagpole to see who salutes it”, then things might have gone a tad too far.

    PS Really enjoyed “God Vs. Darwin” – highly recommended!

  11. says

    Shalom Mano,

    This concern may be what makes writers great, but I’m also aware that, particularly in poetry, certain shorthand comes into play because it evokes feelings and memories common to a society.

    A crude example of this from our current popular culture is the phrase “Doh! I imagine it might be difficult to find an American, indeed anyone with access to American television, who does not understand the significance of these three letters. That does not excuse bad writing, but I think Orwell would appreciate the use word’s judicious use.

    In recent years I have struggled with two simple words in my writing: “it” and “thing.” I’ve come to understand that both are often substitutes for concepts not full understood by the writer or speaker and whenever I type either, I stop and ask myself: “what am I actually trying to say here.”

    B’shalom,

    Jeff

  12. ikunuu says

    I watch too much political punditry. And every one of them prattles on about some point and ends it with “at the end of the day.”

    It happen so often I get irritated.

  13. jamessweet says

    This list is so long that inevitably it will include for each of us a) some that we must shamefully admit to using and abusing, and b) some that we find incredibly useful and will defend.

    For me, “low hanging fruit” is one I will not give up. Perhaps it can be overused, but it is a rather important concept in a number of fields, and I am not really sure of a more succinct way of putting it. In optimizing software performance, it’s practically a technical term. How else do you succinctly refer to “those early improvements which give a large benefit at little engineering cost”?

  14. I'm_not says

    “Working nine to the dozen” or “ten to the dozen” or indeed any number less than twelve to express how hard you’re working.

    The original phrase, “nineteen to the dozen”, comes from the Cornish tin mines. Men were employed to bail water by the bucket to stop the mine flooding. Payment was accrued at every dozen buckets. When the rate of payment per bucket had got so low it couldn’t get any lower it was decreed there were now nineteen buckets per dozen.

  15. tim says

    I agree! That particular phrase usually has me seeing red, because I know what follows will be unsubstantiated opinion.

  16. says

    I think the next time someone uses one of the cliches in the latter list, I will assume the speaker means it literally. I can’t wait for the next time someone speaks of being thrown under a bus!

  17. William Schaedler says

    People use these cliches constantly because they either have none or are too lazy to use more thoughtful language.

  18. Lolly says

    “Went missing.” Mostly only newscasters use this (I’ve seen it in a couple books recently too, unfortunately), but its so irritating. How lazy and unspecific can you be?

    Another one, “Really” used in a scarcastic way. Is that the best comeback you can come up with? Really? How pitiful, one lame word. I’d be embarressed.

  19. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    “Avoid cliches like the plague”

    Now a cliche itself ain’t it?

  20. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @22. Lolly :

    Another one, “Really” used in a scarcastic way. Is that the best comeback you can come up with? Really? How pitiful, one lame word. I’d be embarressed.

    Really? Ya think? (Sorry couldn’t resist.)

    I disagree with you about that especially if the sarcastic “really” is followed by an elaborated argument explaining why although maybe its just because, yes, I’m guilty of using that myself quite often.

    Meh, cliches are part of modern language and how people speak conversationally and in general.

    Avoid overusing them and saying nothing but cliches – or using them to make it hard to understand what you’re saying and meaning – but I don’t think the occassional cliche is such a big problem.

  21. Fidelbogen says

    Nearly all the jargon of feminism ought to go in the cliché can. Individual words such as “misogyny”, “patriarchy” and “equality” are used in a mystificationary way, given that the speaker enjoys great creative latitude in their application. I find that people who bandy these items around are either unclear in their own minds about their own meaning, or attempting for underhanded reasons to conflate something with something else.

    The word “misogyny” alone will serve as a prime example. It is almost never honestly used any more, and is typically a way of smearing or silencing individuals or groups who are deemed to have wrong opinions about certain topics. More often than otherwise, people use this word as something to hide behind.

    As an exercise in semantic hygiene and sheer intellectual probity, people ought to rethink their use of this word and even do a bit of soul-searching if that proves necessary. Every time they feel the urge to slip “misogyny” or “misogynist” into their communication, they should stop and think carefully about what they are actually trying to communicate. Then they should pick from the smorgasbord of possible meanings the one item which maps precisely to their actual thought, and use either an exact term or a short descriptive phrase to convey this. Such exercise might force people to think outside the box, but at least it will keep them on the straight and narrow.

    Taking this to a still higher level, I could propose a moratorium on ALL use of “misogyny” or its derivatives. After all, it is such a cliché, so why not give it a rest? ;)

  22. Fidelbogen says

    Yes, I believe that a single word can serve the function of a cliche just as well as a phrase can do, if it entails the same manner of prefabricated thoughtlessness.

  23. Fidelbogen says

    A cliche is a commonly repeated saying that people use thoughtlessly, often at the expense of objectivity and intellectual honesty. That certainly fills the bill as regards the word “misogyny”.

    My own observation has been that people tend to fling this word for no apparent reason at all. Animus toward women or girls seems to have very little bearing upon it.

    And yes, “racism” and “bigotry” are used in a similarly mindless way by a lot of people.

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