February 29, 2016

Bone Up and Home In on Clichès

by Donald G. Mashburn

If Shakespeare were writing his tragedy “Antony and Cleopatra” today, his tastes in humor and language might lead him to change the words used by Antony in speaking to Domitius Enobarbus when Domitius appeared before Octavius Caesar. Instead of having Antony tell Domitius, “Thou art a soldier only: speak no more,” the Bard might have Antony tell him, “You’re only a GI, can the chatter, or “Button your lip.”

The use of a slang expression by Antony probably would have had little effect on Caesar’s reaction, who then says, "I do not much dislike the matter, but the manner of his speech."

More than a few of us can identify with Caesar when we hear writers or speakers mangle or misuse common expressions in a failed effort to add color to their words.

Clichés, as such, are not bad. There are good ones, and some that are better left where you found them, whether one is speaking or writing. The good ones help with description, and when properly used, can lubricate and enliven language.

Clichés often convey meaning better than plain vanilla prose, and can keep our speech from sounding stilted, too formal, or uppity. But commentators, television reporters, and writers often misuse them. In some cases, the colorful or humorous cliché is twisted out of its familiar “shape” or sound so that a familiar saying is no longer familiar.

A New York Daily News sportswriter provided an example of how to mangle a useful expression, whose meaning is understood by even those who don’t play poker, when he wrote that a certain sports figure should "check his whole card" (emphasis added). Either the sportswriter knew nothing about poker and hole cards, or possibly he was “not playing with a full deck."

The writer apparently doesn't know that in times of uncertainty, one checks the hole card, an expression that refers to the card dealt facedown, in the hole, in stud poker. It’s a blood relative to the expression, “play your cards right,” meaning to make the most of the resources you have, or make the right moves.

The sportswriter might be related to modern-day newscasters who have embraced the term "hone in" for “home in.” “Home in” has a long history of use by pilots and the military, where aircraft “home in on” a navigational target or missiles home in on a military target. Homing pigeons, of course, are quite familiar with the concept of home in on, since they have a natural ability to home in on their nests or mates over great distances.

Pigeons, as far as I know, have never been known to “hone in” on anything. Homing pigeons might be said to “hone” their navigation skills by their long journeys, and turtle doves could be said to “hone” their love-making skill by the remarkable frequency with which they practice. But whether birds “hone in on” anything is highly unlikely.

Then there is that nettlesome and silly phrase, "I could care less." This misused expression makes as little sense as the dull repetitions of "you know" in mid-sentence, or at the end of each sentence for those able to complete one.

Careless reporters sometimes misuse "I could care less," making one wonder where they received their journalistic credentials. The assaults on meaning are legion, and one can’t help but wonder if the perpetrators ever pay attention to what they say.

Stop and think about what is meant by someone who says, "I could care less." It says literally that you care to some degree. It follows, then, that you could care a great deal, quite a bit, or a little. But who knows how much?

The obvious intended meaning is, "I really don't care," or as most often stated, "I couldn't care less." Both of the latter statements say in essence: "I don’t care at all”, or “I could not care any less than I do.” Or, more to the point, “I don’t give a hoot.”

Most of us take liberties with the mother tongue when we want to express a general idea or meaning. And if someone uses non-standard English and makes a point using street language, valley girl talk, or pig Latin, if we understand it, we couldn't care less.

Professional journalists, however, have no excuse for either ignorance or sloppiness in their use of our language. And "professional," is the operative word here, because that's what reporters are presented to be. We expect them to inform us, and we don’t mind if they do it by using informal expressions, clichéd or otherwise, if they don’t mess them up.

But we’re entitled to have the news reported clearly. We shouldn't have to wince at garbled ramblings that assault the ears of those who care about our language.

Reporters should tend to their knitting as they hone their use of clichés, so they can home in on the right expression, and shoot straight from the shoulder to express the intended meaning.

They need to bone up on the proper use of clichés. They should home in on a good dictionary, and study it to hone their writing and reporting.

Then they wouldn’t leave us with the impression that they’re saying, "I couldn't care less," or “I don’t give a hoot.”

Bird of Paradise

By Donald G. Mashburn

The plains seemed to stretch westward forever.
The stagecoach baked in the sun's heated rays.
Behind, Texas hid in a curtain of dust.
Ahead, New Mexico in shimmering haze.

Aboard was one cowboy and one tenderfoot,
Suffering inside in the dust and the heat.
The bald, portly stranger sweated and moaned,
As his bottom was battered on the hard board seat.

Across the dry prairie, lumbered the stage,
The horses labored through the harsh, barren space.
The stranger stared out the window and saw
A road runner running along, keeping pace.

"What is that strange bird?" he quickly asked.
"With legs twice as long as would suffice."
The cowboy paused, then replied with a grin,
"Well, we call that the bird of paradise."

The stranger gazed out at the hot treeless plain,
Then, with bandana, mopped his sweaty dome.
And said, "Sir, if that's a bird of paradise,
He's sure as hell a long way from home!"