Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 13 December 2008

Dot Wordsworth wades through clichés

Dot Wordsworth wades through clichés

Clichés gather on the tide and stick on the shingle of daily life like tarred bladder-wrack. A curious species of cliché sets a stereotyped pattern, into which words may be fitted to taste. A particularly annoying example, because it has pretensions to humour, is exemplified by: ‘The words door, horse and bolted spring to mind.’ Or, in an online discussion of US relations with Venezuela that I have just stumbled across, ‘The words pot, kettle and black spring to mind.’ This is a sort of double cliché, because it incorporates in its unvarying mould some already well-worn proverbial remark. I’d be interested in any information about its origins, but I fear they are irrecoverable.

When I mentioned this tiresome form of humour to my husband he went red around the collar (an indication of thought processes within) and came out with a speech formula that he hated. ‘What part of “push off” don’t you understand?’

This piece of clichéd syntax has at least a short history. An American country singer, Lorrie Morgan, had something of a success in 1992 with an album called Watch Me, featuring a song ‘What part of No’. It is about a woman who repels a man’s romantic advances.

I appreciate the drink and the rose was nice
                                of you.
I don’t mean to be so bleak, I don’t think I’m
                               getting’ through.
I don’t need no company, and I don’t want
                               to dance.

What part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?

There are reports of the phrase appearing in a Californian newspaper called The Mountain Democrat in 1988, but that is hardly the dawn of time.

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