Michael Massing: Avoid These Cliches Like the Plague

This post is a recent piece by Michael Massing from the New York TimesHere’s a link to the original.

The piece consists entirely of a remarkably inclusive list of common cliche’s used by writers in English.  An impressive display, I think you’ll agree.

As all writers know, it’s hard to avoid using cliches.  A cliche is a metaphor that’s been beaten to death.  The problem is that metaphors are incredibly important for effective prose.  A metaphor can take a flat and literal account and enrich its meaning by showing how it’s like something else that is familiar but superficially quite different.  It can borrow from an alternative framework to throw fresh light on the subject.  Like turning an abstraction (subject) into something visual (fresh light).  The problem, as my example demonstrates, is that it’s hard to do this without drawing on a cliche.  In fact, it’s hard as hell to avoid cliches even when you’re attacking them.  Which is why Massing avoids the problem by simply listing the cliches, leaving the reader to figure out the point.  And which is why I probably should have done the same.

But I wanted to exemplify the problem to help show how hard it is to avoid dipping into the deep pool of cliches when you’re writing.  There’s only so creative that a writer can be, so just as we rely on the same vocabulary as others who use the language, we also rely on a lot of the same metaphors.  And once the latter are used often enough, they grow into cliches.  Which leaves you with the option of resigning yourself to literalism over metaphor or coming up with a metaphor that is new but also appropriate and not terribly strained.  It ain’t easy.  

Try going through a day without using one of the cliches in Massing’s list.  I know I can’t do it.

Tip of the Iceberg

Ramped up, amped up, ratchet up, gin up, up the ante, double down, jump-start, be behind the curve, swim against the tide, go south, go belly up, level the playing field, open the floodgates, think outside the box, push the edge of the envelope, pull out all the stops, take the foot off the pedal, pump the brakes, grease the wheel, circle the wagons, charge full steam ahead, pass with flying colors, move the goal posts, pour gasoline on, add fuel to the fire, fly under the radar, add insult to injury, grow by leaps and bounds, only time will tell, go to hell in a handbasket, put the genie back in the bottle, throw the baby out with the bathwater, rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, have your cake and eat it too, a taste of one’s own medicine, stick to one’s guns, above one’s pay grade, punch above one’s weight, lick one’s wounds, pack a punch, roll with the punches, come apart at the seams, throw a wrench into, caught in the cross hairs, cross the Rubicon, tempt fate, go ballistic, on tenterhooks, hit the nail on the head, a nail in the coffin, joined at the hip, welcome with open arms, rub shoulders with, shoot oneself in the foot, dip one’s toes into, have a leg up, dance to the tune of, the next shoe to drop, in the DNA of, the gold standard, a gold mine, land mines, a run for the money, money to burn, penny-wise and pound-foolish, lap of luxury, off the charts, over a barrel, late to the party, it takes two to tango, behind the eight ball, pride of place, final straw, full throttle, no holds barred, red flag, silver lining, on a silver platter, in the rearview mirror, bargain basement, silos, morph, meme, trope, mind meld, warp speed, inner demons, have skin in the game, game changer, change agent, strong suit, ground game, ground zero, inflection point, tipping point, playbook, page turner, singing from the same hymnal, singing a new tune, straight out of central casting, the devil’s in the details, take the bull by the horns, the canary in the coal mine, chickens coming home to roost, beat a dead horse, pony up, the straw that broke the camel’s back, open a can of worms, buy a pig in a poke, cash cow, rabbit hole, dog days, dog whistle, bells and whistles, tool kit, third rail, the tip of the iceberg, the light at the end of the tunnel, the arc of history, speak truth to power, break the glass ceiling, the writing’s on the wall, between a rock and a hard place, beyond the pale, take the wind out of the sails of, that ship has sailed, sinking ship, tidal wave, roller-coaster ride, gravy train, tanked, cratered, Rubik’s Cube, Rosetta Stone, Rolodex, poster child, problem child, rock star, pundit, national treasure, charter member, heavy hitter, heavy lifting, political football, throw a Hail Mary, full-court press, hit a home run, play with house money, laser-focused, secret sauce, red meat, piece of cake, bread and butter, cherry-pick, low-hanging fruit, sticker shock, kick-start, kick into overdrive, kick the tires, kick the can down the road, where the rubber meets the road, an albatross around the neck, a feather in the cap, long in the tooth, armed to the teeth, cut one’s teeth, rib tickler, spine tingling, pull the wool over the eyes of, pull the plug on, pull the trigger, loosen the reins, sweep under the carpet, throw under the bus, throw for a loop, read the riot act, lead the pack, the short end of the stick, at the drop of a hat, the jury is still out, hung out to dry, as if that weren’t enough, it would be an understatement to say, it would be no exaggeration to say, despite or perhaps because of, what goes around comes around, for all intents and purposes, make a long story short, the fact of the matter, to be sure, truth be told, a who’s who, famously, arguably, literally, zeitgeist, mantra, optics, granular, narrative, interrogate, paradigm, venue, robust, compelling, fever pitch, pitch perfect, picture perfect, perfect storm, take by storm, eye of the storm, back burner, petri dish, echo chamber, hot button, hard wire, go viral, bingeable, blockbuster, on steroids, testosterone-laced, metastasize, contextualize, preternaturally, outsize, gobsmacked, turbocharged, weaponized, apocalyptic, existential …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s