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November 01, 2006


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One of my favorite examples of a cliche too far removed from its origin: the many sports teams called "Trojans." It was a long and bloody war, and in the end, the Trojans *lost*.

Enough said, and well said at that!

I understand and share your objections to cliche's (that's an accent on the "e" masquerading as an apostrophe). But byond the fact that's it's a cliche', I don't think "level playing field" finds usage in a way inconsistent with its meaning. I always thought that "level playing field" meant you and I, as competitors, have no advantage beyond the differences in our abilities. So if I were to say (I wouldn't, so as to avoid a cliche') "I want us to have a level playing field," I'd mean that I don't want you to derive an advantage over me and vice versa from the phyiscal attributes of the competition venue.
P.S. Nice piece.

How about "----- is the new black"? Or "paradigm shift"

Ah, lovely post. Thank you! There are many that I really cannot tolerate but one that particularly annoys me is "Skin in the Game". When I'm doing a business deal, I don't want to see any more skin than necessary. And, business transactions are only "games" when they are done without integrity or authenticity.

Love your blog. You write, I read and link. Looks like a "win-win situation."

Sim--Yes, what about "X is the new Y"? Over at Language Log (one of my daily reads), they've coined a term for this construction: "snowclone." The term covers several "cliché frames," including "If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z." Read the original post, and link to a long chain of follow-ups, here: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000350.html

Stephanie--I wonder whether "skin in the game" would have caught on if it hadn't been coined by none other than Warren Buffet. I agree, it's an unpleasant image--right up there with "eat your own dog food" (which I think has a very similar meaning).

"Pushing the envelope" bothers me, not so much because it's a cliché, but because I don't understand the metaphor. Do you know where that one came from?

Becca--If you've ever read Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" or seen the movie based on it, you'll understand the context for "pushing the envelope." It's an aviation term that means "pushing the aircraft to its limits." (In "The Right Stuff," the limit was the sound barrier.) According to www.wordorigins.org, "in the world of aeronautical engineering the envelope is the collection of curves that describe the maximum performance of an aircraft." Of course, every middle manager wants to sound like a top gun, so the metaphor found a new home on terra firma.

"Built from the ground up" suggests that it's not a cosmetic change, it's a tear-down and rebuild. Makes sense to me. The likelihood of this actually being _true_ for a product thus described is, of course, a separate matter.

I'm with Charles on "level playing field." Which however ignores that in many games, teams change sides at halftime. :-)

"Drink the Kool-Aid": As someone noted recently, many people who use this phrase weren't even born when the tragedy in question occurred, and have no idea what it actually refers to.

BTW, some people I'm affiliated with recently released some software that comes in several flavors, including "core," "toolkit," and -- I kid you not -- a "Value-add release." Obviously they didn't consult with me before that name was -- heh -- cast in concrete.

Another vote here for "paradigm shift". It's used almost exclusively to mean simply "change", rather than the original and intended meaning of "total change of worldview".

pax et bonum

John: Re "paradigm shift" -- hear, hear! As R.L. Trask put it in "Say What You Mean!" (a learned and readable guide to style and usage), "This term was introduced by Thomas Kuhn into the philosophy of science, but it has been picked up and applied with wearisome frequency to almost any change in policy or fashion. Avoid it in favor of something more explicit."

And as long as we're in the "P's," let's also place a moratorium on "parameter" to mean "limit," or, worse, "characteristic." Here's what John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has to say about this frequently used mathematical term: http://blogs.baltimoresun.com/about_language/2007/03/if_beggars_coul.html

The gsaldh was j,asdfesoew and then qwefoekw jnj kjn couldn't ewqjff jewpk a thing! Why, [l pjloke jkjk just pkjkk lkkjke like ojkl jmk??$ %^nj.

Clear? No? But I was being original and using my own words to express myself.

While I agree with the premise of the article and that a lot of expressions are lame and overused, there's a balance to be struck between originality and economy.

The economy of understanding is lost, of course, when people misunderstand and misapply the metaphor. Even you misunderstand "level playing field". It was never intended (as noted in a prior comment) to eliminate competitive advantage, merely that there should be no inherent unfairness in the way the business is conducted.

A perfect example is the inherent unfairness of agricultural subsidies in the west (particularly the EU and US) that make it difficult or even impossible for developing countries to compete.

And while "drinking the kool-aid" has some macabre overtones, used well by people who know and understand the origins, it is a powerful metaphor for brainwashing.

Good article :)

My current pet peeve: "out of pocket", which should mean you had to pay for something, and is now often misused to mean a person was away or unavailable.

Corporate cliches drive me bananas. In protest, I've started using my own. They're not catching on, (I can't imagine why!) ha!

Low hanging bee hive
Throw the monkey out with the tricycle
Think outside the equilateral triangle
Get our pigeons in a row
Drink the company capri-sun
Lion’s share of the animal crackers

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