The following is an excerpt from It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches [Oxford University Press, $24.95], a collection of frequently-used yet defensible clichés. According to author Orin Hargraves, inexcusable clichés are those that don't accurately evoke the correct mood or tone. Otherwise, clichés can be useful in conjuring up appropriate metaphors. When used properly, the 9 clichés below are totally acceptable.
a bed of roses
Writers who wish to go straight for the jugular will state the cliché in its full canonical form: “Life is not a bed of roses.” Short of that, there are many variations on the bed of roses theme, which is nearly always accompanied by a negation. The cliché is a minor offender and most often serves to remind an audience that life doesn’t usually support unusually optimistic expectations. After “life,” the situation most likely to be characterized as un-rosebed-like is marriage.
"Acting is no bed of roses at the best of times, but those early years can be particularly hazardous."
"Marriage is not a bed of roses, but is built on trust and forgiveness. Nothing in life is a bed of roses, but picnics are certainly very relaxing."
bells and whistles
This cliché is most frequent in literature about computers -- not surprisingly, since they are the products most likely to be distinguished by or marketed on the basis of various special features. All the bells and whistles accounts for more than a quarter of the cliché’s use and is often a sign that some disparagement is intended, the bells and whistles being by implication a poor substitute for underlying substance.
"We get caught up in the bells and whistles of site-specific farming and lose focus on the real objective: to increase net income for the stakeholders."
"With all the bells and whistles in this thing, it’s pretty hard to pass up, whether it’s an upgrade or a new system."
"Instead of the complete solution with all the bells and whistles, I opted for functionality."
a breath of fresh air
Like many clichés that consist of monosyllables, this one is often preferable to a more literal formulation of the idea it expresses. It becomes clichéish only when accompanied by the superfluous welcome or much-needed; it is a rare breath of fresh air that does not have these attributes inherently.
"With the lack of new and innovative ideas in the field of nursing and patient care, this book serves as a welcome breath of fresh air."
"Coventry’s rise to the top division brought a breath of fresh air to English football."
"Given the dearth of real alternatives in today’s political landscape, Negri’s perspective offers a much-needed breath of fresh air."
the calm before the storm
This cliché is most effective when accompanied by convincing characteriza- tions of both the calm and the storm, with some indication of the significance of the change of state. The first example does this. It is not necessary as filler to simply describe a change of state. Such changes are ordinary and for that reason are not good candidates for the particular characterization this phrase provides.
"The long reign of Antoninus Pious has been described as the calm before the storm, a storm that would plague the reign of his successor, Marcus Aurelius."
"There was complete silence. It was unnerving, like the calm before the storm. It’s very much the calm before the storm now. The riders are moments away from starting the climb up to Courchevel."
a fish out of water
The vivid image presented by this cliché makes it a suitable metaphor for anyone or anything struggling against unsuitable or unsupportive surroundings, as in the second example. It is not the best choice when all that is meant is “anomaly.” Fish out of water is unusually popular in writing about the arts, perhaps reflecting the fact that fish out of water are engaging subjects (or are they clichés?) for depiction in film and fiction. Fish out of water is also unusually frequent with a first-person subject, which may be due to speakers wishing to convey something more colorful about themselves than “out of place” or “alienated.”
"But the film itself is a fish out of water as well, with modern euphemisms sprinkled through the dialogue and rock and roll playing as part of the musical score."
"Arjun is the classic innocent abroad, the fish out of water, making for moments both slapstick and poignant."
"I felt somewhat like a fish out of water at Beaver Creek -- a diehard Nordic skier in the middle of one of the largest, swankiest alpine ski resorts in America."
a game changer
When clichés have offspring it’s reasonable to assume that the apple will not fall far from the tree, and so it is here: game changer is conceivably a bastard child of a whole new ball game. Though game changer originated in sports, where it still has a somewhat literal meaning, the cliché is found today most often in news and business journalism. It is helpful when context makes clear exactly what figurative game is being affected, as in the third example.
"Out of twenty different technology firms, they’re the only one that in my opinion was a game changer."
"While Mr. Wu didn’t offer any thoughts on market share gains, he did say that Boot Camp potentially could be a significant game changer."
"The Florida primary could very well be a game changer in this topsy turvy Republican race for president."
hop, skip, and a jump
This cliché whimsically denotes a short distance (sometimes a figurative one) in sentences where some construction using “near” or “not far” would give an acceptably equivalent meaning. It is evenly distributed across informal genres and journalism. Users’ preference for it suggests their inten- tion to make it clear they are treating their subject in a lighthearted way, and it is only jarring if previous context would make this incongruous.
"The real reason I love our new place is that it is barely a hop, skip, or jump from one of New York’s best cupcake joints."
"Both scientists note that the military is already turning to semi-autonomous weapons and cyber-assisted soldiers to fight battles. From there it’s only an intellectual hop, skip, and a jump to cyborgs."
"So, Jonathan, this actually means that we’re just a hop, skip, and a jump away from knowing the name of the winning city."
a needle in a haystack
There’s no better or more vivid way of describing something that’s rare and hard to find than this cliché, and it only falls flat when used as mere hyperbole, as in the first example. Many writers use it productively to good effect, as the other two examples show.
"Finding a home in Marin is like trying to find a needle in the haystack."
"It’s impossible to track genes once they have been set free, it’s like a very small needle in a very big haystack."
"A VC’s biggest problem is filtering the incoming heap to find what they consider to be that needle in the haystack that’s worth funding."
face the music
Face the music has the benefit of concisely telescoping the more literal versions of its meaning, such as “take responsibility for” or “deal with the consequences.” When it characterizes a situation that is expanded in surrounding text, as in the second and third examples, it doesn’t fully merit its appearance.
"Someone must face the music for such a brazen misuse of scarce public resources."
"Eventually, the company had to face the music and today the FTC announced that it had settled with DirectRevenue."
"This morning, the world’s biggest military computer hacker Gary McKinnon is facing the music in court."
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