Last Call

The Usual Suspects

With New Year's approaching, it's time to rid our rhetoric of stale metaphors and other clichés.

By From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

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BY USING STALE METAPHORS, SIMILES, and idioms,” George Orwell wrote in 1946, “you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”

He thought political writing suffered particularly from this problem and went on to recommend that writers should “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” That advice proves easier to give than to follow, as Orwell himself admitted.

But in that spirit, and with a New Year approaching, I’ll offer a few figures of speech or expressions that are best sent to the retirement home. Every presidential campaign furnishes a crop. At the top of this year’s list would have to be “game changer.” This phrase must never be uttered again in any context (not even a real game). During the longest campaign in history, it came off the lips of commentators at the end of every debate, or in the course of talking-head smash-ups on cable television. Orwell wrote that the word “fascism” had so deteriorated from overuse that it now meant “something not desirable”; by the time “game changer” had run its course, it meant “something not definable.”

Some of that may have had to do with its containing the most worn-out single word of the season: “change.” While Orwell did not recommend shotgunning perfectly good single words, “change” did find its way into hackneyed phrases that were exhausted within a few repetitions. Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, “Change You Can Believe In,” quickly became an object of derision for critics, who ended what seemed like countless commentaries by stating some variation of “that’s not change we can believe in.”

But while the word “change” is too fundamental to be sent packing, “maverick” does not enjoy this essential status, and should probably be mothballed for the duration. And one devoutly hopes never to hear “hockey mom” spoken in company, respectable or otherwise. In fact, all adjectival-mom phrases should be pensioned as well: hockey mom, soccer mom, army mom, arugula mom, or what have you. Without these phrases, we’d have to confront what we’re really trying to say about these moms—or whether we in fact mean to discuss them as moms. Maybe there is something else we’re trying to say about them. How would we know? Start with cutting out the dead phrases, perhaps.

Though not unique to this political year, a number of other expressions have also run their course. “It’s the economy, stupid,” the big catchphrase from 1992, has lurked for 16 years like a member of the undead—usually with the concern of the moment standing in for “economy,” or, when the economy again becomes the focus, “It’s still the economy, stupid.” Its earth box needs to be sought out and a stake driven through its heart.

On the conservative side, a few venerable titles have been adapted several hundred times too many. Top of that list would be “My [fill in the blank] Problem, and Ours,” an adaptation of the famous Norman Podhoretz essay title from 1963, where the operative word was “Negro.” A quick Google search found “My Jewish Problem, and Ours,” “His Toughness Problem, and Ours,” “My Marty Peretz Problem, and Ours,” and “My Huckabee Problem, and Ours.” As a member of my family often intones during political developments he dislikes: Make it stop. (He’s my problem, not yours.)

Of course, one shouldn’t be shocked, shocked, to learn that writers use clichés (or that Casablanca provides so many to lean on, including my used-up title). It can be difficult to avoid them, especially when writing about politics. Orwell believed that was because the role of language in politics is to obscure reality instead of reveal it. True enough. He didn’t live to see today’s instant media culture, when content is more time-driven than ever, and the temptation to reach for the familiar is that much greater. Orwell also didn’t account for how clichés can reinvigorate themselves in an irony-steeped culture.

As I wrote this, the University of Toledo defeated Michigan in a major college football upset. A friend wrote me that the event was momentous enough to merit an exception for a certain well-used phrase. Sometimes only the familiar will do, so let’s not stand on ceremony. Holy Toledo!

Paul Beston is associate editor of City Journal.

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Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.