Lexicographer cherishes cliches as easily understood shorthand to speech

January 01, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

The English language has not gone to pot. It's not on a slow boat to China. It's not going to hell in a handbasket.

We have this from the horse's mouth.

The horse is a noted lexicographer who believes with all her heart that cliches, while as old as the hills, can be as fresh as daisies.

Christine Ammer, the lexicographer and a good conversationalist to boot, has just compiled "Have A Nice Day -- No Problem! A Dictionary of Cliches" (Dutton, $25). She has listed 3,000 of 'em, defined 'em and found out where they came from.

(Yes, that means she's separated the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats and the men from the boys all while scratching the surface, scraping the bottom of the barrel and rocking the boat.)

The 454-page book is Ms. Ammer's way of paying tribute to the much-maligned tool of speech. But she is not making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. She really likes these things.

Cliches are, she says, the fast food of the language, but they're useful ones. They are a few words that do the work of too many paragraphs and too much dialogue. Who among us doesn't know how to steal someone's thunder? Who among us knows why thunder has anything to do with it?

(Dying to know the answer to that? Seems that 18th-century playwright and critic John Dennis devised a thunder machine for one of his plays. But a few nights after his play closed, a production of "Macbeth" employed his method of rattling tin to simulate a storm. Dennis was there and, the story goes, he hopped right up and said, "They steal my thunder." Now you know. Don't give it a second thought.)

"Cliches are instant communication," says Ms. Ammer. "They're very effective, though they've gotten a bad name from creative writers and poets."

That's because poets are confused. Cliches are not great poetry and no one in his right mind thinks so. Nor they do not constitute literature -- though their origin could be.

Instead, cliches are just bits of talk that made it wholesale into the language because people just kept repeating them.

Take "gone to pot." Ms. Ammer says she thought it would be a relatively recent addition to the language and was surprised to find it originated in the 16th century and had something to do with stew meat.

"The weaketh go to the pot. Think about it. It still works with the cliche."

"No problem" -- at 20 years old -- is about as young as Ms. Ammer's cliches get. And it made it in because it has made it into popular literature and not just popular language.

Ms. Ammer's anthology, which is a serious work, doesn't include 1,000 or so phrases that either couldn't be tracked down or couldn't really be called current.

It goes without saying, then, that author Ms. Ammer is a scholar who took nothing at face value and who hopes that no grass grows under your feet as you crossword puzzle fans, you word lovers, you curiosity seekers, give her book a warm welcome.

She, then, can laugh all the way to the bank.

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