I’ve often said that a cliché is not necessarily a bad thing. Phrases become clichés because of their ability to quickly and clearly illustrate an idea. Think of them as members of the All-Star Phrase Team. They are the ones that often do the hard work of driving the point home. “Driving the point home” being on of them. Writers are discouraged from using them as they are thought of as lazy and not creative. Yet, they work. That’s the thing that most fascinates me about them.
This thought occurs because of the phrase “till the cows come home.” It was used as part of a punchline by a comedian and brought great laughter. What caught my attention was the fact that the audience was made up of mostly young people. (Old guy definition for any one younger than me.) Most of them were in their mid-twenties to early thirties. Granted, they understood the meaning of the cliché, but I doubt any of them ever thought about how it came about. Likely they weren’t a bunch of dairy or cattle farmers. I began to wonder where this All-Star phrase originated.
According to several sources, there are a couple of similar answers. When cows are turned out to pasture to graze, they often don’t return until the next morning for milking. The other answer referred to turning cattle out to graze in spring or early summer. In this case, they didn’t usually return until autumn when the grass was less plentiful and they returned to the barn for grain. I’m willing to bet that most reading this, like me, understand what the phrase means but not where it originated. I find the origins rather disappointing. I’ve always had an image of cows drunkenly joy riding on a tractor after a night of hitting the clubs. Bovine babes out on the town!
In kicking around the internet in search of those wayward cows, I hit upon a few more clichés that I use but haven’t really thought about in literal terms. Let’s run through a few.
It warms the cockles of my heart
I know it can be used seriously as a compliment referring to something that pleases you. Or it can be used in a sarcastic fashion, which is the way I’ve used it most of my life. I know you find it shocking that I can be sarcastic, but ‘tis true. Cockles is derived from the Latin “cochleae cordis” translating to “ventricles of the heart.” Add that to the list of things you didn’t need to know unless you find yourself on Jeopardy. In practicality, my cockles most often get warmed by a rack of spicy ribs fresh off the Big Green Egg. A good antacid usually takes care of it.
A bed of roses
On the surface, this sounds wonderful. But once I started to really think about it, I kept thinking “I hope they removed the thorns.” Otherwise, tucking yourself into that bed becomes a thorny issue.
Easy as pie
Really? This had to be coined by someone who has never made their own crust. Your grandma made it look easy and taste great, but that’s from years of practicing what her grandmother taught her. I didn’t have that advantage. Too much butter or a one too many drops of water and its gooey. Too much flour and it falls apart. I know some of you are talking to the air saying I should use lard. That really is the key to getting it rich and flaky all at the same time. While a crust made that way would warm the cockles of my heart, it would also clog them. What I’m trying to say is that if you are going to use “as easy as pie”, realize you’re referring to dumping a can of fruit glop into a store-bought crust. Now that is easy.
Likely you know what this means. It too can be used seriously to compliment someone. Most often we use it sarcastically to point out someone who seems to flaunt their good morals for the purpose of putting themselves above others. Think certain social media posts. But where was it born? “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes” is a story published by John Newberry in London in 1765. It is the story of Margret Meanwell, an orphan who only has one shoe. She receives a new pair of shoes from a rich man. She is so happy that she tells everyone she meets that she has two good shoes. The phrase picked up the meaning of someone who does good. Humans being humans, we changed it over time to something that is not always meant as a compliment.
I understand that beavers can be described as industrious or even productive. But that’s just their genetic coding. I’m not sure they are eager to bring down big lumber with just their teeth. I think it has more to do with not wanting to starve or have to sleep outside where they could become someone else’s diner or hat. Where I come from, we call that survival not being eager. It’s all about semantics, I suppose.
19 to the dozen
This is one I stumbled upon while doing research for this article. It refers to someone who is talking way too fast. It comes from Cornish miners who had to pump water out of the mines. Their pumps could pump out 19-thousand gallons of water for every dozen bushels of coal you put in the machine’s firebox. I’ve never heard it used but look forward to employing it. It definitely belongs on the All-Star team.
While clichés can make your point, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, the bottom line is that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
Take for example Jack. If all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and if ignorance is bliss, then Jack should ditch college, live in his parents basement playing video games and remain interesting.