worn-out words: here she goes again!

I still think of my high school English teachers as tired warriors in a post-apocalyptic fable where the day starts with the lonely and gallant hero/heroine checking who still lives. I would wonder why they didn't just give up (too young to understand the interplay of tenure, mortgage, grocery bills) and go live on a beach somewhere. In fact one teacher wrote a well-organized, understandable grammar text and did just that.

Anyway, when I read that laughter keeps frail elderly people sharper and healthier than their depressed contemporaries,  I knew, just knew, that I had discovered what kept the English teachers above room temperature and vertical in front of a chalkboard. Not the desire to mold young minds, not a yearning to inspire the next Sylvia Plath or Carl Sandburg, not love of the First Amendment: far from it! They taught to laugh.
 I had visions of teachers stuffing papers into their document cases and rushing off to a teachers' bar (kind of a more articulate Wookie Bar), to play drinking games. Chronically misunderstood Mr. B**k would read papers from his 2nd period sophomore class, a drink for every mention of "Silas the Mariner." And drink again for variations like Simon, Simon/Silas/Silex the Ancient Mariner, the Mourner....  I never knew why this particular work was part of our curriculum anyway. Because it was assigned, I actually read it, start to finish, and I want to tell you, the only thought I had was that somebody's brother-in-law must have had the book supply contract.  Or Ms. vanH***, she of the uncorrected overbite, would hold the stopwatch on "Find a verb in these 3 supposedly related paragraphs." And I imagined dear mild Mr. W**n carefully enunciating every would-be syllable in the Newly Invented Word of the Day: perhaps "excruliatory," his neat white beard wreathed in fumes of dry sherry as he evaluated the group's suggested definitions.  The examples, if not the bar and the games, are based on the contents of a folder labelled THIS MUST STOP, which I found, left open, on a desk in the living room of a teacher for whom I baby-sat. Naturally I looked. It had to have been left that way for a purpose.

A real-life contest was to write a three-page something without using a single cliché or hackneyed expression. The winner was to be excused from the next written English assignment. This was held once and not repeated. The winner was not announced. It was said that the results were so depressing that the teacher who sponsored it spent most of the summer in hospital. He certainly was paler in September than he'd been in June.

Some of the things I learned from the tortured souls of the English Department:

Hackneyed expressions are expressions that may have once been original and may indeed still be true, but have long since become stale or ineffective because of overuse or excessive repetition. Examples: we're obsessed; we're addicted; effortless.... Clichés are slightly dressier hackneyed expressions that were once original, and now just sound like someone isn't trying. Sometimes using a cliché in a new context, generally ironically, brightens it up for a bit. Don't count on it. (Note ironic use of hackneyed expressions in this paragraph.)

An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not readily predictable from the usual rules of a language or from the usual meanings of the mere words of the expression. Idioms are short-cuts in social and professional situations, and as such serve a useful purpose. If you clear your throat and apologize for the presence of a frog in it (or, if you're in France, a cat), you'll receive sympathetic smiles at worst. If you clear your throat and apologize for the presence of phlegm and mucus and other manifestations of post-nasal drip, people will back away from you. If you sit down at a lunch counter and order a "BLT down," you'll get a very nice light sandwich. If you launch into a description of how the bacon should be cooked, the tomato sliced, the bread toasted, you'll get peculiar stares. Oh, and if you want a large cup of warm, weak milky coffee at a café in France, don't faff around about "latte." Order "un grand crème."

Hackneyed expression contests, in fact bad writing contests of all kinds, abound. Here's a link to one of my favorites: sadder but wiser . Check out the reader submissions.

What I learned from tortured souls I met later in life:

The legal profession (sometimes known as the world's second oldest profession) abounds in tired usages. This is because almost every expression has a technical (legal) meaning, and if the writer varies from the judicially defined or professionally accepted, there will be consequences to the client or - horror! - to the writer. One such expression has to do with not knowing what goes on while a jury deliberates. See above: may still be true.

Update: I managed to turn off the television without making any changes to the previous paragraph other than a font change.  


  1. Hello:
    Well, whatever they did or did not do, your English teachers certainly left you with some lasting impressions and a highly active imagination.

    It is so true that one does tend to stick with the same vocabulary, rarely venturing forth into the lesser known dark corners of the dictionary[Shorter Oxford, in our case]for something new. But, perhaps, this post will inspire a syzygy of experimentation.

  2. Fred I was ROTFLOL, I mean, I was Highly Amused, I mean you made me laugh this morning with this. File under things English majors find funny and others are unlikely to!

  3. Jane and Lance, wbrigitte, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! In my early school memories, there's always at least one adult threatening me that I will be grateful for having read/studied/memorized/practiced some awful thing or another, and one of my earliest spiritual/religious memories is of composing a wish that this not be true.


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