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Nothing shows its age worse than a clever cliche

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There’s an apocryphal story about a newly hired copy editor at one of the Chicago papers back in the day. Assigned to the sports desk, the young wordsmith was called upon to edit a column written by one of the paper’s longtime sportswriters. He was surprised to find the column was riddled with cliches – overused sayings he’d heard his entire life.

True to his training, the young man sought to eliminate the tired verbiage. But, he knew better than to rewrite the work of a veteran.

So, he phoned the aged writer – a man who had been in the press box when Ralph Kiner hit 54 homers in 1949 and who had witnessed the great Ernie Banks as a rookie.

“Sir,” the young copy editor began, “I’ve just read your column for tomorrow’s paper, and I like it a lot. But, I couldn’t help noticing it contains a lot of cliches. I’d like your permission to rework it a little to eliminate some of them.”

“Son,” the old sportswriter responded, “I invented those cliches.”

You really have to feel for that young man. But, such is the bane of those in love with language.

I’ve encountered similar cases in my career on the copy desk. On occasion, I have crossed paths with veteran writers whose prose was off limits to any editing. Some of the writing was so good, I never switched off the safety on my blue pencil.

I’m a lot less gun shy these days. Over the years, my patience has worn thin, and my tolerance for overused words, jargon and witticisms has waned.

I admit, some of these tired expressions may have had their moment. Some may even have enjoyed a degree of cleverness in their infancy.

But, while most cliches have the good grace to wither into obscurity – die of natural clauses – others survive, cluttering the language, adding weariness to any message.

When editing news copy, I savor opportunities to obliterate cliches.

When I see “Rain didn’t dampen the spirits of …” at the beginning of a story, I check the powder in my delete button and deliver a 20 megaton erasure.

Zap! Even the author feels the recoil.

My disdain extends to the point where I keep a running list of some of the most prevalent cliches I’ve encountered over the decades.

The 1970s

• Dig (it)

• Rap

• Love is the answer

1980s

• Bottom line

• Attitude

• Arguably (an adverb to boot, making it twice as detestable)

1990s

• Awesome

• Infrastructure

• Outside the box

2000s

• 24/7 (The all-time champion cliche, and it’s not even a word.)

• Transparency

• Proactive

• Really?

As for the current decade, it’s a little hard to rank.

For sure, “double-down” and “live, work, play” are in the running.

Another one is “folks,” which has become obligatory in political speech these days. Imagine Ike or Kennedy using “folks” in an address.

Amazingly, there is one cliche that hails back to that era, an expression that remains intact and pretty much unblemished.

It’s the word “cool” – not “cool, man” or “cool, Daddy-O,” just “cool.”

It was cool back in the ‘50s as the singular title to Leonard Bernstein’s score in “West Side Story.” It was cool in the ’60s when those in the know advised: “Be cool.” It was cool in the ‘90s when it truly was overused.

Even today, who can resist a chance to win a “cool million” or earn some “cool cash?”

Is there anyone who wouldn’t love to drive a “cool car,” wear a “cool jacket,” or just be thought of as “cool?”

Someday, someone will come up with another expression like “cool,” something that resists wear and remains as fresh – and as “cool” – as the day it was born.


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