Jan 08, 2024, 06:24AM

Cliché Benefits

Words play an important social role.

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Art: Michael Gentile

One winter morning, a woman stood on a beach. The threat of dark clouds gathered across the horizon. Shells tumbled in the surf. The ocean did what it likes to do, and one of its favorite things is seasonal destruction. A quiet time before a turbulent period is alluded to by a hundreds-year-old expression “the calm before the storm.”

At face value, the storm idiom is a meteorological term. In the 17th century, sailors understood weather patterns. They noticed an eerie silence enhanced by atmospheric changes. Shore birds knew it too, falling silent. Obviously not for forecasting purposes, an analogy first appeared around 1608. The saying became a trope throughout the 1800s. Today, an AccuWeather alert on your device of choice is the way to go.

“There are plenty of fish in the sea, but there’s only one ’66 Barracuda. Watch it get away,” cited an old Barracuda advertisement. Cruising around in a two-door, bubble-back is “my cup of tea.” The 1800s beverage axiom seeks positive desires, as opposed to a 1920s negative connotation “not one’s cup tea.” Work crews at full-service gas stations want to see the muscle car’s engine. An open window drive experience is an opportunity to “ride shotgun,” a stagecoach adage from the Wild West era. Along the journey, we’re “happy as a lark,” an 1800s English proverb that describes a cheerful morning songbird.

A peculiar culinary proverb offers kitchen insight: “The proof is in the pudding.” Back then, 17th-century or earlier, pudding was an unappetizing offal that turned stomachs. Considering the lack of refrigeration and sanitary conditions, a taste test was conducted to determine whether food was rancid. Since no Imodium was available at the time, finding someplace to go must have been difficult.

It’s pretty clear being “ahead of the game” is one of advertising’s primary goals. This mid-1700s proverb pertains to winning at gambling. There’s no shortage of buzzwords when selling a car, home or fragrance. Being the “butt of the joke” refers to being the object of ridicule, it relates to the support (buttress) of an archery target from 14th-century France.

A key sales technique is using offbeat ideas and TV personalities to hawk. Many well-known characters have acquired questionable likeability over time, like the creepy stalker Cologuard box. Isn’t it best to let doctors get to the bottom of your health care issues?

And what about the toilet paper people love to squeeze? Charmin’s marketing campaigns have adopted a variety of guises over the years, such as Mr. George Whipple, an unpleasant grocery store manager to the bathroom habits of a cartoon bear family. So much for leaves, corn cobs and moss. Proving once again, crappy bathroom humor is an acquired taste. That’s tear-able.

There are multiple references to 1880s Black communities’ cakewalk dancing competitions. “Takes the cake” is generally a sarcastic remark, indicating that something’s outstanding, either the best or worst. The fictional human Doug and the CGI-created LiMu Emu appear in commercials for Liberty Mutual Insurance. The contemporary ad pair embark on missions that are “a piece of cake” which means an easy accomplishment. Nicely done, emu.

If teens become addicted to TikTok, are we “going to hell in a handbasket?” Dark roots discovered here. A few notables: getting hauled away to purgatory in a hay cart, seen in a 16th-century Hieronymus Bosch painting The Haywain Triptych. Other sources hint at guillotine executions needing a basket to catch severed heads. To further weigh in on the situation, 19th-century gold seekers were lowered down mineshafts in baskets to set-off explosives.

We’ve accelerated into a fiery abyss. Getting hot and antsy? When egg-laying chickens become broody, an old Southern farm adage applies, “madder than a wet hen.” The internet is home to an astounding amount of mind-numbing propaganda. Social media is far ahead of government regulations. And while technology holds a tight rein on our daily activities, a misery still exists. Word of a backlash? The Guardian’s Ross Barkan predicates romantic renaissance changes.

I’m a cliché, you know what I mean. I’m a cliché, pink is obscene.”—X Ray Spex

Opening “Pandora’s Box” reveals a glut of overused and sloppy phrases. Angry scholars and grammar experts advise against clichés. They give advice and disagree. Many of these euphemisms have offensive and funny beginnings. Emojis were developed to give us emotional clues to determine tone and satire in a text or email. Here we find a similar conundrum. Cliché nuggets of wisdom and knowledge are the seasoning for tasty vernacular. It doesn’t seem like a sign of lazy language if it gives pause for reflection. So don’t worry, they work.

With truthfulness absent and dishonesty the norm, a cultural phenomenon has emerged. Just look at the dubious TV commercials for jellyfish tablet memory enhancers targeting the elderly. In The Ticket That Exploded, William S. Burroughs predicted in 1962, mind-control experiments would become acceptable through subversive technology. And that’s the unappealing situation we’re in today. At the same time, a social crassness that was previously unheard of is also on the rise. We’re in the hands of destiny.


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