Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cliche Phrases -- Nonfiction

And I do.  I ❤️️ cliches.

I raised my children on cliches. (You'll notice I'm not going to the trouble to figure out how to get the accent mark over the 'e.' Or is it a L'accent grave? I googled "grave mark." Got lots of search results on grave markers. Headstones! Obviously Google is English and not grammarly inclined. Twenty minutes later I found that 'cliche' is correctly written as cliché. That's the L’accent aigu. I bet you didn't know that mark's full name either.) But I digress.

Yes, I also raised my children on digressions.

"But that's not what I come here to talk about." I come to talk about cliches and their meanings.

"Hook, line, and sinker" A cliche that everyone understands, right? Even though they may not understand what it actually originally meant. (In which case they must have grown up without a brother who fished and then married someone who didn't fish. You notice I didn't say "married a man" because I gotta say one of the most avid fishermen I've ever known was my Aunt Roberta.) The hook is, of course, the bit of curved metal that hides in the bait to catch a fish. The line is the bit of string that attaches the hook to a fishing rod so the fisherman can reel the fish in. And the sinker? That's usually a small bit of lead attached to the line a bit above the hook to keep the bait, hook, and line from floating to the surface where unwary fish are less likely to wander by. Of course this cliche is often used to refer to a human who like a fish is either so hungry or so dumb that they swallow not only the bait, but the hook, the line, and the sinker, too. Sorta like last year's American electorate.

Then there's "lock, stock, and barrel." Now it wasn't until I married my current husband that I learned what this refers to. I thought it meant like when a farmer loses his farm, they sell off everything, lock, stock, and barrel. I took it to mean literally the lock on his front door, his animals, and even that empty barrel that's way in the back of almost every barn I've ever been in.

But, no. It started with black powder guns. In fact, all guns, even today's guns, have a lock. That's the mechanical part of the gun that causes it to fire -- the trigger, hammer, firing pin, etc. The stock is the part of a long gun that you hold against your shoulder. And the barrel is -- well it's the barrel of the gun.

And, how about "Long row to hoe?" How often have you heard someone misspeak this cliche as "long road to hoe?" ROW, people, ROW. As in those long, beautifully straight lines of cotton plants in a cotton field. Or maybe those folks that say "road" don't know what a hoe is or what it does. Hoes are used to cut out unwanted plants from between the wanted plants, like weeds that are likely to compete for that most precious commodity in a New Mexico cotton field -- water. Hoes are also used to break up compacted soil around plants which improves the plant's opportunity to take up water and grow.

Nobody wants to break up a road. Compaction on a road is a good thing. It allows water to run off without undermining and carrying away whatever material the road is made of. It also allows for a smoother ride.

And take it from me "a long row to hoe" is exactly like it sounds. On a cotton farm in New Mexico, four rows can be so long that they equal one acre. And those fields easily run to more than a hundred acres. Through the 1950s it was done by hand with a hoe. Migrant workers, mostly. Braceros. In our youth, my brother and I got to hoe only part of a row under that unforgiving sun. It was enough to understand that that work would make a long, hot, dusty, exhausting day of work. But we also knew that when you got through, you would have done something to improve the chances of a good harvest and make enough money to take care of your family.

That "long row to hoe" still refers to any difficult time we're likely to need to endure in our lives. Especially with the possibility of success at it's end.

Cliches! Writing teachers the world over (there's one) threaten writers to within an inch of their lives (there's another) to avoid cliches at all cost (and another) or we'll never make the New York Times Best Seller list (maybe the biggest cliche of all!)

The thing is, cliches enjoy broad understanding and the main point of writing, indeed language, is to be understood. An original and elegant or, for that matter, crude but evocative turn of phrase may give me a flutter of excitement. But cliches are like that warm place in front of a fire, while you drink a cup of something satisfying with your best friend. They are familiar.