I wish I could say that every writer knows how important it is to keep his or her language fresh. In theory, none of them would deny it. Yet all too often, I find myself reading the same tired old phrases and misapplied words. Leafing through a recent read, I found “a knee-jerk reaction,” “a vibrant industry,” “the spitting image,” “short and sweet,” “like he’d seen a ghost.” It’s one thing to use such expressions in dialogue, another in narrative. But that is not actually my beef today. I would like to complain about the fact that in addition to the old clichés, we now have an abundance of new clichés to guard against. Where did they come from? How did they spread so fast? And why, oh why do so many writers insist on using them?
When, for example, did “night and day” (or “day and night”) become “24/7”? When did “back in the old days” or “way back when” become “back in the day”? How did a simple “never” turn into a facetious “not anytime soon”? Actually, that one charmed me the first time I saw it, in Rosemary Harris’s first mystery. When her wisecracking suburban protagonist meets a hostile and suspicious female police detective, she says, “We were not going shopping together anytime soon.” But all too soon, I saw the same expression everywhere. Note to self: if “anytime soon” (or “back in the day” or “24/7”) should inadvertently trickle from your fingertips, delete asap!
I know where “thirtysomething” (and its derivatives, “twentysomething” and “fortysomething,” if not “fiftysomething”) came from: it was the title of a TV series that debuted in 1987. The term entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1993, where it was qualified as “specifically applied to members of the ‘baby boom’ generation entering their thirties in the mid-1980s; also attributed as an adjective phrase (hence, characteristic of the tastes and lifestyle of this group).” But the baby boomers are now “the new thirty,” ie in their sixties, and I’ve seen manuscript after manuscript in which “thirtysomething” appears simply to denote a character in his or her thirties. Published books, “not so much”—another overused phrase that has emerged in the last couple of years.
Have you read advertising copy for clothing lately? When did “pants” or “pair of pants” become “pant”? Men can buy “The North Face Men’s Outbound Pant” at Zappo’s—for one-legged mountain climbers, no doubt. “The Polo Ralph Lauren Hudson “Preston” Pant” at Bloomingdale’s—for one-legged polo players, maybe? On the other hand, at Eastern Mountain Sports, some of whose customers really are going climbing, they can still find “North Face Men’s Outbound Pants.” My one consolation with this one is that, as far as I know, nobody but advertisers and maybe retailers is using “pant” as a noun.
The most recent shift in usage that I’ve noticed, this one more in the spoken than the written word, is “iconic” for a variety of perfectly good adjectives with a number of different meanings: “classic,” “typical,” “best known,” “original,” and “household word.” Where did that one come from? You will probably be able to visualize the item I have in mind, whether I say “an iconic Coke bottle” or “a wasp-waisted Coke bottle”—but one is neo-cliché, while the other, I hope, is prose.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
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I'm wondering where "threw him under the bus" came from--you hear it everywhere now. I can also remember complaining when "impact" became a verb. How does that impact you?
Good one , Liz! (God, I know I used iconic just the other day -- yikes!) One I don't like is 'grow' as in 'grow a business.' Just sounds wrong to me.
God bless you on "pant," Liz. A pant is one leg of fabric. If you're not buying a pair of pants, you're not getting your money's worth.
I recently read a(bestselling) book in which a room was described as being "decorated to within an inch of its life." That sentence has so much wrong with it that I don't know where to begin.
As a non-writer, I can understand how some of these phrases and/or words enter our language with new applications. After all, if they didn't, Old (or is that 'Olde'?) English would still be the written - and spoken -word. I think it might be a tendency of writers to mimic what is being said in the world outside of books.
That being said, though I haven't heard or seen it yet, 'pant' for a pair of pants would make me wonder if the speaker/writer skipped English class in high school.
Coincidentally, a few days ago I was thinking about the odious "back in the day," because I know someone who uses it constantly, and because it's become all too commonplace on television programs. When you pause to think about it, it's a pretty vacuous expression. Phrases like "Years ago" or "X-number of years ago" or "in the Seventies [or whatever decade fits]" make more sense and are more specific.
I'm so pleased to see all your comments. I'm still hoping someone can provide info on where these expressions started. Did "24/7" and "back in the day" each originate on one specific TV show or simply sprout, like mushrooms?
I think 24/7 came from an advertising slogan, maybe from a convenience store chain?
Using scrapbook as a verb drives me nuts. It's not only stupid,it's apparently dangerous to one's health. I've observed those who use scrapbook as a noun appear intellectually challenged--perhaps NIH should look into this.
Wasn't 24/7 originally a business term used for factories that operated around the clock and never shut down? I may be completely wrong. I've been hearing it for a long time, in any case.
I suspect that somebody once said "back in the day" on TV and somebody else picked it up, and... That's the way all slang spreads. Slang is typically in the street language for a while before it shows up in print.
I agree about scrapbooking as a verb. This provokes a bit of teeth-grinding on my part.
Since copying the lowest common denominator of anything is becoming popular, I suspect that is where pant came from. Mercifully, I missed that one. For fun, tweak their marketers by telling them you won't buy from those companies until they stop it? I love saying "post-haste" and had to catch myself in that last sentence.
My mother was a fashion designer in England post-WWII. There "pants" meant undergarments, not trousers. When she came to America she discovered that "pant" was used very often to mean trousers in the "rag trade" (the garment manufacturing business). The word slowly migrated, with the ultimate S, to retail so that by the mid-to-late 1950s pants were available everywhere. Today, it's an affectation made popular by such TV shows as "Fashion Police" and especially "Project Runway."
I meant to say today's it's an affectation to say "pant" instead of "pants" made popular by the TV shows mentioned.
Here's another annoying cliché to ponder: "my bad" instead of saying "I'm sorry" or "oops" or "excuse me."
Boggle the mind!
Ohhh. So if I watched Project Runway, I would have known. And yes, Cat, "my bad" belongs on this list. I wonder, am I the only one who will admit to occasionally using these expressions we're having so much fun trashing? It's sometimes hard not to join in--in speech, if not in my writing.
Using "grow" as a transitive verb, such as "grow a business" as pointed out by Vicki Lane, was I think begun by Bill Clinton during his first campaign for the presidency. He promised to "grow the economy."
Liz, this is an amazing post and you are an amazing writer. I thank you for writing it and I know you'll say 'no problem' because that's what everyone says 24/7since 'thank you' has apparently gone down the drain along with 'excellent' and other adjectives that amazing has replaced.
Liz my friend, this is one of your better posts. In fact, it is BRILLIANT! You should send it to Bill the Editor of the Times. I often wonder about the same meanings of these same words and phrases. Well, go figure... now whatthehell does THAT mean?
Hi Liz, I love this post! Your pet peeves are mine, too. I've also heard the word "like" far too much spoken, but luckily haven't seen it in the written language, yet. Maybe I'm just getting old.:-)
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