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Cliche Sunday

The first day of Spring! Of course, what else could we do besides spring like cliches? Actual spring cliches being few and far between, I picked those that make me feel like the season.

break the ice: to start a conversation or project. Once upon a time, small towns on rivers were locked by the ice in the winter time.   Sturdy little ships were needed to come up the river and break the ice so larger ships could come up with supplies and business opportunities. Every townsman knew that to get goods to market and increase business, you first had to break the ice.

til the cows come home: to stay in bed late. Most people seem to think that this is a late night occurrance, and I suppose that if one stayed out until the cows actually came home, then one would be out all night and that would be a late night indeed.  But this country saying is from cows lineing up in the morning at the gate hoping to be milked. This phrase dates back to the 1600s, and if one was indeed in bed until the cows came home, one’s neighbors would be very disapproving.

to put one through a course of sprouts: to put one through a severe and  disciplined course of instruction, or a grueling test at the end of such.  Constructed in America, the actual origin and date of this cliche is not known. Being a course of instruction, “sprouts ” could refer to children. The cliche isn’t found much before 1870s.

to sow one’s wild oats: to behave foolishly at a young age, to get it out of one’s system. Wild oats (Avena fatua), growing unchecked through Europe, is a weed and very difficult to get rid of once it spreads. Thus one would be very foolish to plant it on purpose. The phrase has been around for over 400 hundred years:

    ” that wilfull and unruly age, which lacketh rypenes and discretion, and (as wee saye) hath not sowed all theyr wyeld Oates”*

sub rosa or under the rose: “strict privacy, utter confidence and absolute secrecy”* A very old cliche that comes down from the Greeks. Once they saw an image of the Egyptian god Horus, seated under a rose with his finger to his lips, they believed that he was the god of silence. Unfortunately, they completely misinterpreted the picture, as it was in reality a lotus and the infant god was merely sucking on a finger. However, this story faxcinated the Greedks and survived, leading to the cliche “under the rose.”

*A Hog on Ice & other curiouse sexpressions, Charles Earle Funk

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Book Report

Time to check in on some of my grammar list reads. I have not made as much progress as I would like to be, but at least I am inching along. 

My first book was A Hog on Ice, & Other Curious Expressions by Charles Earle Funk. You may recognize the name Funk,as Charles was indeed editor-in-chief of the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary. He wrote six or so more books on word and phrase origins, including Heavens to Betsy, Horsefeathers (always a favorite saying of mine) and Thereby Hangs a Tale. While I have not read this book cover to cover, I have used it several times for my Cliche Sundays. And when bored, it is always fun to flip it open and see what is on the first page you come to! An excellent reference book.

In the middle this week I have the Portable Curmudgeon by Jon Winokur. This is a fantastic book Jon compiled of, as the cover says, world-class grouches.  Between 1986 to 21011, many books on writing carry Jon Winokur’s name. The cover also says that he has been in a bad mood since 1971, which perhaps explains this book 😉  The book is arranged alphabetically, by the quote type. So if you need a curmudgeonly quote on dogs, turn to page 87 and see what Samual Butler, Andy Rooney, Mark Twain and Charles Lamb have to say. On dog owners, Aldous Huxley said: “to his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.” I knew I loved my dogs! From abortion and abstract art to youth and yuletide curmudgeons, Mr Winokur has a pithy saying from a famous curmudgeon. Again, not a straight read-through book, but fun to pick a subject and see what Charles de Gaulle or Oscar Wilde had to say about it. Additionally, he had several in-depth interview with such malcontents as Fran Lebowitz and George S Kaufman scattered through the book.

And then there is Fumblerules by William Safire. A New York Times writer, he guarded grammar ferociously for years starting in 1973 with his column “On Language”. He could be quite terse and indeed, bossy, when it came to incorrect use of language. However, his caustic wit is one of the main enjoyments of Fumblerules. Particularly as it is not aimed at anyone specifically, unless you really mess up you grammar.  With section titles like “avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read” and “ixnay on colloquial stuff”, his light-hearted rules lead one through the confusing and sometimes painful rules that make up the English language. He tackles everything from adverbs to hyperbole and onomatopoeia.

    I shall leave you with my favorite title of Mr Safire’s “Better to walk through the valley of the shadow of death than to string prepositional phrases”

 

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Cliche, anyone?

As I set up my blog, I tried to figure out what I would do for posts and pages and fun stuff.   I can’t just play it by ear (cliché alert), I have a deep-seated need for organization and lists. One thing I thought would be fun would be “Cliche Sunday”. So many clichés! As writers we are always trying to avoid them.

But do we know where they come from? I mean, sure, we all know where

 “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

came from. But how about

 “tail between his legs”                “a face like a bulldog chewing on a wasp” ?                                                                    “a half-baked idea”  

And, has anyone heard the bulldog/wasp cliché in the last decade? When does a cliché stop being overused and become acceptable as a new fresh way to express oneself? Do we get to decide for ourselves? I kinda love a face like a bulldog chewing on a wasp. Extremely expressive.

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