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Dictionary of Clichés

Guide to classic, common phrases

I make my living with words, more or less, but from time to time, I mix metaphors, indulge in incorrect idioms, and certainly fall back on tired phrases, believe it or not. This book of short explanations of thousands of clichés is a handy, quick reference any crossword puzzler, Scrabblehead, blogger, editor, or copywriter will enjoy. It’s like the Cliff Notes of what’s buried deep in the OED. I’ve always been into etymology — after all, it’s history for word nerds — so the best aspect of this text, to me, is getting at which clichés are Shakespearean, Biblical, Great Depression-era, etc. We’re often taught in English classes to avoid clichés and hackneyed phrases like the plague. Thumbing through this book, you realize they’re so ingrained in our everyday discourse that it’s easy to forget some are even clichés (i.e. “no problem”). When push comes to shove, no matter how you slice it, I’d wager you’d be hard pressed to write or say anything of length that doesn’t have at least one. Surely identifying them would be a good way to temper usage. Live and learn!

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more or less Approximately. This term has been around since the thirteenth century and still serves as an inexact answer. It also has been subject to numerous word plays, such as "More or less, but rather less than more" (Phoebe's comment on her betrothal to Wilfred, W.S. Gilbert, The Yeomen of the Guard); "A little more than kin and less than kind" (Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.2); and "Less is more" (the simpler the better; Robert Browning, "Andrea del Sarto").

believe it or not Appearances to the contrary, it is true. Already a common phrase by then, in December 1918, it became the title of a cartoon series originally drawn by Robert LeRoy Ripley (1893-1949). It appeared in American newspapers for many years and was continued even after Ripley's death. Each drawing represented a seemingly unbelievable but allegedly true event or phenomenon, such as a two-headed chicken or a three-legged cat.

avoid like the plague, to To stay away from, assiduously shun. The scourge of western Europe on numerous occasions, the plague, although poorly understood, was known to be contagious even in the time of St. Jerome (A.D. 345-420), who wrote, "Avoid, as you would the plague, a clergyman who is also a man of business."

no problem That's fine; you're welcome; I'd be glad to help. This conversational reply expressing acquiescence and other positive feelings originated in America in the mid-twentieth century. It also has been taken hold in numerous parts of the non-English-speaking world; the author has heard it in France, Austria, Yugoslavia, and Singapore from individuals who otherwise knew almost no English (other than "okay"). Others report having heard it in Russia, where it is often used ironically, Kenya, and China. In Australia, however, it alternates with "no worries" (probably from the 1930s British locution, "not to worry"). The journal American Speech recorded "no problem" in 1963 as an equivalent of NO SWEAT. The OED's citations include Martin Amis's Rachel Papers (1973): "He... gave it back to me, saying 'No problem' again through his nose." It has quickly become as ubiquitous and as divorced from the words' original meaning (i.e. "there is no difficulty") as HAVE A NICE DAY and TAKE CARE. Indeed, Pico Iyer pointed out that today "'No problem' every language means that your problems are just beginning" (Time, July 2, 1990).

push comes to shove, if/when If/when matters become serious; when the situation is crucial; IF WORST COMES TO WORST. This term, with its further implication that action should back up words, appears to have originated in African-American English around the middle of the twentieth century. Murtagh and Harris used it in Cast the First Stone (1958): "Some judges talk nice and polite....Then, when push comes to shove, they say, 'Six months.'"

no matter how you slice it See SLICE THE PIE
slice the pie To share the profits. This metaphor has largely replaced the early-twentieth-century "slice of the melon," but exists side by side with the more literal PIECE OF THE ACTION. It comes from nineteenth-century America. T.N. Page used a version in Red Rock (1898): "Does he want to keep all the pie for himself?" And the Boston Sunday Herald (1967): "An appellate court victory... cut Wymouth's total property valuation... to give the town a bigger slice of the sales tax pie." A related term, "no matter how you slice it," is a twentieth-century Americanism meaning "no matter how you look at it." Carl Sandburg used it in The People, Yes (1936): "No matter how thick or how thin you slice it it's still baloney."

live and learn Experience is a good teacher. This adage was already stated in the sixteenth century by George Gascoigne in his play Glass of Government and has been repeated many times since, in numerous languages. James Howell's English Proverbs (1659) expanded it a bit: "One may live and learn, and be hanged and forget all."

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