Brother, I hear what they're saying. Too much, so, in some cases.
A story the other day noted that England's Plain English Campaign decrees the most irritating cliche is "at the end of the day." It may not be my personal least-favorite, but it's close.
There are plenty more. Working with words tends to make one sensitive to their use, just as a good mechanic can be fanatical about his set of wrenches. The best mechanics will work with only the highest-quality tools they can afford, and leave the cheap junk to the shade-tree amateurs.
Just as a mechanic can ruin his reputation with one botched job, people who communicate for a living can attract uncomfortable attention if they screw up a sentence or misspell a word. For example, we let a grammatical error slip in a cartoon caption two weeks ago, and from the reaction of some people you would have thought we were embarking on a mission to forcibly stupidify (yes, I made the word up) the entire populace.
Cliches, however, aren't errors. They're conversational shortcuts. And as any good mechanic will tell you, taking a shortcut is a quick way to ruin an engine.
So if I compiled a list of the lexicological laziness most likely to grind my gears, then, it would be:
"The bottom line." Like "at the end of the day," the person who reflexively resorts to this clich is admitting to losing track while trying to make a point, and then hoping that by saying "the bottom line is" to quickly get back to it. (I'm thinking of one guy in particular who abuses the heck out of this cliche not to name names but his initials are Austin Rhodes.)
"I'll be honest with you." It always makes me want to ask, You mean you've been lying up until now? This one drives me nuts (as my mother-in-law will tell you). And is it a coincidence that salespeople can't seem to carry on a conversation without using it?
The meaning of this cliche really isn't about honesty, though; the person resorting to this habitual device is insecure about their ability to win over the listener, and is seeking a comfort level beyond they feel like they've been able to reach during the conversation. The speaker is saying, "If I've been holding back, now you can really trust me."
"Literally," when the speaker means "figuratively." This is also one of the Plain English Camp-aign's choices, and what seems in-creasingly to be a losing battle (like getting people to understand the difference between "it's" and "its"). There's a commercial, for example, in which the speaker refers to something that makes his phone "literally ring off the hook." That must be one loud phone.
Speaking of phones, another group recently ranked cell phones as modern technology's most annoying contraptions. What's really irritating is all the cute songs and ring tones people get. What the heck is wrong with having a cell phone that just rings?
To make matters worse, these musical phones always seem to go off in embarrassing places, buried in the bottom of some woman's suitcase-sized purse where they honk and bleat until the frantic owner paws it free.
Two stories there: A phone belonging to a member of my church's youth singing group began screeching a very secular ring tone during a service. My minister looked at him sternly and said, "That had better be God calling and if it is, I want to talk to him!"
Then there was the elderly daughter of a man whose funeral I attended a couple of years ago. Just as the casket rolled past, her phone began loudly chirping a snappy tune. Her embarrassment practically radiated as she scrambled to dig the culprit from her pocketbook.
I'll be honest with you: Even the funeral attendants were mortified.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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