Musing, Words


It is a bit of an understatement to say that I am a huge English nerd. I love language in general, but English is the one that I can actually speak, which gives it a place of pride in my book. But there’s another, less personal reason for my deep and unabiding affection for the English language, and it is this: English makes no goddamn sense. English doesn’t even pretend to make sense. English spits in the face of sense, steals its shoes, then runs away cackling. English is an asshole.

To prove this, I’ve turned to my handy dictionary of cliches (The Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches by Christine Ammer). Cliches are one of the hardest things to learn in any language, but English has some real doozies. I often hear non-native English speakers teased for not understanding English cliches, but that’s hardly fair, considering how batshit insane all of them are. In light of this, I’ve gone through my cliche dictionary and pulled out a number of cliches that I had never heard of before, without looking at their definitions or origins. In trying to define them, I hope to re-create what the experience of encountering the bizarre and strange world of English cliches for the first time might be like. Come along for the ride.

1. All wool and a yard wide.

Given the ‘wool’ and ‘yard’ references, I’m guessing this is a sewing reference of some kind. Though it could also be a reference to a particularly fluffy sheep, which would not be out of place given the history of the English language as a working class language. Not sure what definitions you’d translate those things into–is it an insult? “You’re a fat sheep”? Maybe it’s saying that somebody is unpleasant like wool is itchy, and a yard wide so also fat? But if my first instinct was right and it’s a sewing thing, it probably has something to do with not short-changing anybody. Like, pure wool not laced with anything, and the full yard rather than a few inches short. That sounds a lot more likely, though I prefer the fat sheep thing.

Actual definition: “Genuine, not a sham. The expression comes from the yard-goods industry, where a seller would claim that a piece of cloth was 100 percent wool and measured fully a yard, in contrast to inferior material and short measures.”

Hey, I guessed right! Maybe this won’t be as challenging as I thought. Come along, sheep, to the next one.

2. A fine kettle of fish.

My first instinct is that this is a positive thing, like how you’d say someone was a “fine lad” or whatever, but it also kind of sounds like it’s begging to be said sarcastically. I mean, there are very few contexts in which you could genuinely compare somebody to a fish and be complimenting them, I should think. Pretty much the only circumstance where that works is with mermaid references. I’m going to go with this being an insult–someone can be “a fine kettle of fish” in the same way they can be a “shining example of humanity” with heavy sarcasm appended.

Actual definition: “A messy predicament. This term is believe to come from a Scottish custom of holding a riverside picnic, itself called a “kettle of fish,” where freshly caught live salmon are thrown into a kettle boiling over an open fire and then are eaten out of hand, definitely a messy procedure.”

…aight, Scotland, you win this one. I never would have guessed the fish were literal. Although in retrospect that probably should have occurred to me. Also, guys–forks. Come on. Ew.

3. Kick over the traces.

‘Traces” immediately makes me think of a crime scene, so I’m going to go with this meaning “to hide the evidence.” Like, you kick over the evidence bucket (does evidence come in buckets?), or kick dirt over the traces of the crime, like how you might kick dirt over a fire to finish putting it out.

Actual definition: “To break loose, away from control. The traces referred to are a pair of ropes or straps attaching a harnessed horse to a wagon or other vehicle. A horse can kick over these attachments when refusing to run or pull the vehicle.”

OH WOW I was way off on this one, though I ought to have seen the horses coming. An alarming number of English cliches have their roots in horses. I mean, there’s the infamous “beat a dead horse,” but also “dark horse,” “champing at the bit” and even “kick up one’s heels” like a prancing horse. English loves its horses.

4. Like it or lump it.

“Like it or leave it” comes immediately to mind. I bet they’re related somehow. This is the more violent of the two, I think–“lump it” meaning to beat it up, like you would “take your lumps” to bear a punishment or beating.

Actual definition: “Put up with it, whether or not you like it. An Americanism dating from the early nineteenth century…. The precise source of lump has been lost. One authority suggests it comes from a British dialect word meaning to look sullen; another believe it is a polite version of “stuff it (up your behind).”

…aw, come on, really? It’s the more pacifist cousin of “like it or leave it”? Boring. Also, “like it or [sullenly put up with it]” aren’t really great options. What a douchey thing to say to someone. I guess it’s more akin to “put up or shut up,” which has always been one of my personal favorite nonsense cliches. Like, doesn’t putting up with something inherently imply shutting up about it? Redundant, English. Edit for clarity.

5. Put his/her nose out of joint.

For some reason after the previous disappointment I am really set on one of these being about punching people, so I’m going to go with “punch in the face” for this one. Nose out of joint, i.e. broken. Makes sense. Come on, face smashing….

Actual definition: “To be irritated or jealous, particularly when one is displaced or supplanted by someone else. … The image is a bit puzzling, since it implies that the nose can be dislocated (it can’t–it has no joint), but that has not deterred its continued use.”

Damn, thwarted on the implied violence again. Maybe it’s related to “cut off your nose to spite your face,” what with the whole nose-linked-to-jealousy concept? Yeah, I have no idea how this makes any sense at all, but at least I’m not alone and the author of this dictionary agrees with me. Love the tiny anatomy lesson aside, too. Good work, people.

6. To ring the changes.

Alright, I need to get at least one of these right. I smell victory here. I’m tempted to say that ring is a reference to ringing somebody up, like in a store, which would make this phrase about tallying things somehow–taking stock of what’s changed. But most cliches are old enough to predate concepts like modern, ringing cash registers, which throws some doubt on that theory. What else does somebody ring? You can wring something, but to ring it? Maybe it’s like when you gather in a ring, or flowers ring the edges, or something else like that. You’re encompassing the changes, which is still essentially the same definition. Taking stock of change.

Actual definition: “To try every possible variation in doing or saying something. The term refers to the ancient English art of change-ringing, in which a series of tuned church bells are rung in as many different sequences as possible.”

…WHAT? How the hell am I suppose to guess that? Church bells??? Also, that sounds like a really annoying practice. Can you imagine living in a town on the day when the church bells get change-rung, and they’re literally just going off in various combinations all. day. long??? Yet another reason to be glad not to live in ancient England.

7. One’s salad days.

This refers to that couple of weeks when you tried to go vegetarian and then couldn’t hack it, right? Just kidding. UM. Salad days. Maybe it’s a reference to a period of time before cooked food, when greens were essentially the only safe thing to eat? Am I actually implying that this is a reference to caveman times? Yes, I think I am. I think it means the days when you were too naive/un-advanced to figure out how to make food more complicated than salad.

Actual definition: “Inexperienced youth, when one is still very green (i.e. unripe). The term comes from Shakespeare, who probably coined it: ‘My salad says, when I was green in judgment: cold in blood’ (Antony and Cleopatra, 1:5).”

YES. I GOT ONE RIGHT. I mean my logic was totally unrelated and unnecessarily convoluted, but I’m calling this a win and NOBODY CAN STOP ME (piss off, Odysseus).

8. Shank’s mare.

I–what? Where do I even start? A shank is a knife carved from unorthodox but available material, usually in a prison. A mare is a female horse. What would a knife carved from unorthodox but available material want a horse for? I guess a shank could be a reference to an injury of some kind, like shin splints. I’m gunna go with this being a horse that’s lame, which was expanded to describe a person with physical disabilities…? Really, though, I’ve got nothing.

Actual definition: “On foot, walking. This quaint expression uses shank  in the sense of ‘latter part of’ or ‘end of,’ a usage rare except in this phrase.”

Yeah, no shit that usage is rare! Considering how much I have never heard this phrase before in my life, I’m gunna go ahead and rule that definition of “shank” obsolete. TAKE THAT, YOU SMUG, CLICHED BASTARDS.

9. Stewed to the gills.

Oh man, this sounds like a drinking metaphor. Drinking metaphors are one of the most prevalent types of cliches, so I was really hoping I’d find one. I think this one is it. I’d like to take ‘colorful descriptions of drunk people’ for $200, Alex.

Actual definition: “Extremely drunk. The noun gills here has nothing to do wtih the breathing organs of fish, but rather was slang for a stand-up collar. Consequently to the gills came to mean ‘up to one’s neck’ of ‘completely,’ and in the early 1900s stewed, for soaked in liquor, was added.”

HA HA. I WIN AGAIN. When in doubt, go with drinking metaphors. Or horses. Drinking and horses–the cliche’s favorite haunts.

10. When the balloon goes up.

Last one! I’d better make it good. I’m guessing balloons going up is a reference to hot air balloons or zeppelins or other such floating vehicles, which would make this phrase a reference of finality, I think. It’s like “that ship has sailed”–you were either on it when the balloon went up, or you weren’t. It indicates a deadline for making a decision.

Actual definition: “When some activity or enterprise begins. This expression dates from World War I, when the British artillery would send up a balloon to signal gunners along the line to begin firing.”

Welp. Wrong again. Though I stand by my logic on this one. That doesn’t sound like a very smart strategy to use in a war, sending balloons in the air all the time, like “hey guys! Here’s where our front line is!” At least we finally got a little violence in here, though, what with the shooting. So yay for that?

Just for shits and giggles, here’s another phrase I came across in my hunt that threw me for a loop:

Bonus: You’ve got another think coming.

…another think? A THINK?? Has the phrase really been “think” this whole time? Apparently so. Ugh, English, you are such an arbitrary and changeable asshole. Just goes to show you that cliches are almost impossible to fully grasp, even if you are a native English speaker, because even the ones that you do understand can just change at any time. Think????? Really????

Yours in cliche,
M.M. Jordahl

“It’s a cliche that most cliches are true, but then, like most cliches, that cliche is untrue.” -Stephen Fry

P.S. If you don’t know about Flula, he’s like the Internet’s reigning king of staring at English cliches with a ‘wtf’ expression:


2 thoughts on “Cliches”

  1. Just came across this in George Orwell’s wonderfully grumpy journalism (from 1945):

    “NOW that ‘explore every avenue’ and ‘leave no stone unturned’ have been more or less laughed out of existence, I think it is time to start a campaign against some more of the worn-out and useless metaphors with which our language is littered.

    Three that we could well do without out are ‘cross swords with’, ‘ring the changes on’, and ‘take up the cudgels for’. How lifeless these and similar expressions have become you can see from the fact that in many cases people do not even remember their original meaning. What is meant by ‘ringing the changes’, for instance? Probably it once had something to do with church bells, but one could not be sure without consulting a dictionary, ‘Take up the cudgels for’ possibly derives from the almost obsolete game of singlestick. When an expression has moved as far from its original meaning as this, its value as a metaphor—that is, its power of providing a concrete illustration—has vanished. There is no sense whatever in writing ‘X took up the cudgels for Y’. One should either say ‘X defended Y’ or think of a new metaphor which genuinely makes one’s meaning more vivid.

    In some cases these overworked expressions have actually been severed from their original meaning by means of a misspelling. An example is ‘plain sailing’ (plane sailing). And the expression ‘toe the line’ is now coming to be spelled quite frequently ‘tow the line’. People who are capable of this kind of thing evidently don’t attach any definite meaning to the words they use.

    1. The best part of this is how many of them are still in use 69 years later. Sorry, Orwell. Although ‘crossing swords’ has come to have a very…different…meaning, at least over here. Perhaps Orwell would have approved of the creative repurposing?

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