Hard talk on figures of speech

22:35, Mar 13 2012

Some cliches are clever, others are astoundingly stupid.

It's a truism that the English language is in a constant state of flux. And no aspect of it changes more rapidly, or more frequently, than the figures of speech we use.

Consider some of the expressions common in my childhood but now used only by people of a certain age, such as "good as gold" and "right as rain". You may hear them at the local bowling club, but not in a trendy bar in the Viaduct Basin.

Who these days cadges money or suggests going for a burl in a car? Who refers to a good friend as a cobber, or exclaims "corker" as a term of approval?

Who says "What a dag" when referring to something funny, or complains of being rooked at the corner dairy? And what member of Generation X or Y would know what it means to kick up bobsy-die or rattle your dags?

These were all common terms when I was growing up, but are unlikely these days to be heard from anyone under the age of 50. In their place we have acquired a new vocabulary which, given the speed at which things now pass into obsolescence, will almost certainly have a much shorter shelf life than some of the expressions mentioned above.


There, I've just used a contemporary figure of speech almost without thinking: "shelf life". "Shelf life" and the closely related "use-by date" strike me as clever and inventive expressions. They are abstract but their meaning is clear.

I can think of many other evocative figures of speech that have come into common usage in the past decade or two. I quite like the term "high maintenance" for someone who is emotionally demanding. The same person might also be described as having emotional baggage – another apt metaphor.

Similarly, the saying that someone is out of their comfort zone strikes me as an effective use of metaphorical language, as is "wake-up call" for something that jerks you to your senses.

The trouble with all these expressions is that they can very quickly become tired and hackneyed through overuse. "Singing from the same song sheet?" "On the same page?" These too started out as appealing expressions, but they illustrate how easily today's vivid figure of speech can become tomorrow's ghastly management jargon.

But at least they started life with the virtue of being imaginative. Other ubiquitous slang expressions sounded silly and cliched right from the get-go (and there's a particularly absurd cliche, one that makes no sense no matter how you look at it).

We all have our linguistic peeves, not all of them entirely rational, and the following are some of mine.

"To die for". Soldiers die for king and country, martyrs die for their faith and mother animals die protecting their young from predators. But no-one ever died for a double-shot latte, Egyptian cotton sheets or any of the other ridiculous things that airheads and luvvies constantly proclaim are "to die for". This silliest of expressions merely exposes our pathetic preoccupations with the glossy, the glitzy and the trivial.

"Gobsmacked." If only the people who claim to be gobsmacked actually were smacked in the gob; now that would be something worth seeing. It might also shut them up for a while, or at least until the bleeding stopped.

"Blown away." Oh, I wish. In one of my recurring fantasies, users of this expression are picked up by a rogue tornado and deposited hundreds of kilometres out to sea.

"Gutted." Hardly a day passes when we don't hear of someone feeling gutted because they weren't selected for the Black Caps, or because their favourite pub closed, or because the bus no longer stopped at their gate. In fact disembowelling would be far too gentle a fate for perpetrators of this preposterous hyperbole.

"Rock up" (as in, "I rocked up to the bar and ordered a beer"). This has its origin in ghetto drug slang, which is where it should have stayed. Unless they're users of crack cocaine, anyone talking about "rocking up" is trying tragically hard to sound cool. Leave it alone, please.

"Heads up." A favourite phrase of mediocre middle management types, who think it conjures up images of being alert and on the ball. In fact it marks them as drearily unimaginative and conformist, and therefore never likely to progress any further.

"On the back of." Journalists are the principal offenders here, thinking it sounds authoritative to report, for example, that share prices have risen on the back of encouraging economic news. But like the equally silly "rolled out" (as in "ultra-fast broadband will be rolled out nationwide"), it reveals them as slaves to fatuous jargon.

It pains me that journalists, who should be a good example to everyone else, resort so readily to the tedious and predictable. But I wouldn't go so far as to say I was gutted by it.

Manawatu Standard