The Cure for the Common Cliche

We have to hand it to those who visit a foreign country and make the bold effort to integrate. Typically eager to learn the native tongue, tourists often focus on basic phrases to help them get by during their visit. But the locals in virtually any country adapt their language in a number of ways to make speech more efficient, and most of those adaptations don’t make it into the “Learn a Language in Three Days” books.

Language is often turned inside out as speakers borrow words with other meanings to suggest a new definition. This is how cliches are born. Revising phraseology is big in the United States where cliches often dominate conversation. Pity the unknowing traveler who has brushed up on her English skills, to be faced with a weather report indicating that it’s “raining cats and dogs.” She is likely to feel that she took the wrong language course.

Non-English speaking guests who expect to comprehend words by their literal meanings can no doubt be thrown for a loop. Our language style is filled with innuendos, and we love the clever play on words. But to a visitor, deciphering the exact meaning of any cliche can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Even those experts in American speech can often be confounded by the use of certain cliches. And the fact that new ones pop-up so rapidly doesn’t help (think “housing,” or anything-bubble).

A cliche is a trite expression; a figure of speech that is considered overused or unoriginal. It is a common phrase used by those who want to get a point across without saying much. Used effectively, a cliche can embellish a statement – it can paint a familiar picture or underscore a point. But there’s only one thing worse than a conversation with an over-abundance of cliches; it’s a conversation with an overabundance of misused cliches. For Pete’s sake, if you’re going to utilize an “overused or unoriginal” phrase, at least use it properly. Let’s review some of the most mishandled offenders:

You can’t have your cake and eat it too
Obviously once you’ve eaten your cake you won’t have it anymore. This phrase might make more sense if you flip it: “You can’t eat your cake, and have it as well.” In conversation, the phrase is used to express that it’s impossible to have something both ways if those two ways clash.

Let sleeping dogs lie
This cliche has nothing to do with animals; it means don’t bring up an old troublesome matter. If a complicated issue has been forgotten or resolved, don’t resurrect it.

Bat out of hell
If you’ve ever had a bad date, then you can understand this phrase. It means to leave a location or a situation in a big hurry. (And fuming, annoyed or irritated is implied.)

Penny for your thoughts
This is a goofy way of saying: What are you thinking about?

There’s no i in team
This saying underscores the fact that teamwork is meant to be a collective effort. An individual should not claim credit for an accomplishment, nor should she take the brunt of a plan gone bad, since a team works in unison.

All’s fair in love and war
When it comes to love and war, rules can be broken. This ludicrous piece of wisdom has screwed up more romantic relationships (since those come packaged with boundaries and expectations), and it has put a number of soldiers who didn’t follow regulations behind bars.

No holds barred
Unless you’re a wrestling fan, you may have trouble with this one. In this sport, the term means that any hold is permitted. In the real world, the definition is that there are no restrictions.

As all get out
(Huh?) This bizarre line-up of words is generally used as emphasis and is defined as “as much as something can be.” It’s commonly used in the statement, “I’m as mad as all, get out.”

An acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree
This phrase suggests that a child exhibits the same traits as his or her parents. This observation may be so in a botanical sense, however, some psychologists may argue the veracity of that idea when it comes to human behavior.

Chip off the old block
Similar to the previous acorn caution, this statement is typically used when describing the characteristics of a child that resemble that of his or her parent.

Blew me away
When someone does something that is very unexpected. For instance, “She cleaned the kitchen in 10 minutes; it blew me away!”

Am I my brother’s keeper?
Unless you’re caring for an under-age brother, in which case, you are in fact your brother’s keeper, this statement means: I am not responsible for the actions of another person.

Left at the altar
Abandoned by the other party just before a marriage or merger. Used in business, this cliche refers to a deal or proposal that has been withdrawn at the last minute.

Dog eat dog
The most literal definition is “survival of the fittest.” It implies that everyone must fend for themselves in a given situation.

Call someone on the carpet
Often used to describe a confrontation by a boss, a politician or a suspicious wife, this phrase means to ask someone to explain himself or his actions.

Many hands make light work
Pick up the mop and help. This true-ism suggests that although a task may be overwhelming, a team of people can get the job done more efficiently.

Bend over backwards
A phrase that denotes doing everything possible to help or please someone. It’s generally used to suggest that someone simply cannot be satisfied.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you
Don’t ruin a relationship with someone who pays you, like an employer or, if you’re a minor, your parents.

Raining cats and dogs
Raining very heavily. (Let’s just presume that the guy who first coined this phrase may have been smoking a potent hallucinogenic substance on a rainy day.)

Easy as pie
If you’ve ever made pie, you probably don’t use this cliche. The statement refers to how easy it is to perform a given chore.

What goes around comes around
This statement conjures up images of Justin Timberlake, but prior to his recent hit song, the saying means that you better be careful how you treat others because whatever you dish out will come back at you.

And the list doesn’t stop here. The English language is loaded with cliches that can either garnish a conversation or make your point completely incomprehensible. Make sure that if using cliches is your cup of tea, that you are utilizing the statements correctly so that instead of clarifying meaning, you further confuse your friends.


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