6 Overused Phrases It's Time to Retire
Cliches are interesting. They suck the life out of our writing and quickly identify us as fools when we spray them around a conversation. Nearly everyone who takes writing or speaking seriously knows to avoid them, and yet it takes a significant amount of conscious effort to do so. Left to their own devices (DAMNIT), our brains seem to love squeezing out cliches. But why?
"Why, God, why?" (DAMNIT.)
The problem is, at one point a cliche was a very clever way of saying something, a word or phrase that perfectly captured whatever was trying to be communicated. Every cliche was once awesome, and it's only been massive overuse that's ruined them, decades and decades of repetition, often long past the point where they even make sense anymore.
"... and into the fire."
"You cook over a fire?"
"Are you poor?"
But it's not just old sayings that have become cliches. We haven't stopped coming up with awesome ways to say things, and we sure as poop haven't stopped copying smarter people's work. Many of the cleverest sayings of the last few years, phrases that very recently made us smile, have since graduated into full-on clichedom. Here are six of them, ones that it might finally be time to put out to pasture (DAMNIT!).
"Batshit crazy" is a colorful, attention-grabbing expression that quite rightfully became a cliche. "Batshit crazy" sounds way worse than regular crazy, doesn't it? Even if it's not quite clear how. Is bat shit hallucinogenic? Who found that out first? Is that ... is that what happened to Bruce Wayne when he fell down that well?
"And why do we fall, Bruce?"
"SO WE CAN PIERCE THE NIGHT AND GORGE OURSELVES ON ITS ICHOR AIIIIAIEIIIAIAIIEIEIEIIEIEIE."
This probably didn't come completely out of nowhere; "bats" and "batty" and "bats in the belfry" have meant "crazy" for a long time. "Batshit" is a new variation on it, apparently originating sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Where I assume it must have blown squares' minds.
But in the intervening decades, it's gone from wildly original to just lazy. There are so many other ways to call someone crazy, like, perhaps, actually describing the specific manner in which they're crazy. Pants-shittingly crazy? That's good. Hat-shittingly crazy? Better.
"XX Is the New Black"
This cliche was originally clever when it first showed up in the fashion world, where every year a new color was declared to be "the new black," using some criteria I'm not entirely sure of.
Ability to hide sweat stains, I guess.
The format has since been applied to basically everything else by basically everyone else. People, cars, ethical systems, Doritos-flavored tacos, and many other things have all been declared the new black. This belongs to a family of cliches called snowclones, which all take the form of a simple template where a couple words can be swapped in to create a humor-like effect. They're sort of like a paint-by-numbers system for being clever, and in the same way that paint-by-numbers books have yielded few great pieces of art, you shouldn't expect too much out of this or any snowclone.
"And here you can see where Renoir just stopped caring."
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I thought long and hard about including this when I realized how difficult it is to define the word. "Douchebag" describes a fairly specific type of person, one not immediately captured by any other labels. A douchebag is a bit different from an asshole, and a bit different from a loser, and a bit different from a moron. He's sort of arrogant, but that doesn't quite capture it right, either. I guess I'd describe a douchebag as "an inconsiderate man who is incorrectly proud of himself."
He's also perpetually hitting on your girlfriend.
Useful though it may be, goddamn is "douchebag" an icky word. For that reason alone it's worth avoiding, although there are better reasons still. Mainly, by resorting to a cliche, we really limit the amount of abuse we can heap on these horrible, horrible people. "Douchebag" is such a bland, unimaginative label to apply to a group of people who are awful in so many interesting, specific ways.
Briefly: the hair, the collar, the manner, the armpits, the collar, the face, the collar, the collar ...
"Metric butt-ton" is a quantity meaning "lots." The phrase plays on the well-known facts that tons are big, metric tons are bigger still, and a ton made entirely of butts is so big, and round, and out there. It's, like, gross.
Other brothers can't deny the possibility of getting sprung.
I did a bit of (hilarious) research into this one, but couldn't really figure out where it originated. "Butt" is an archaic unit of measurement used for wines and liquors, and there's some indication that "buttload" was used non-hilariously in this sense back in ye olde times, but I find it pretty far-fetched that our current usage derives from that. Basically I think someone added "butt" to an existing word because it sounded funnier.
"Wait. Oh my God, that works."
But now it's mainly used by people who want people to think they're joking around without having to go to the trouble of thinking up a joke. There are better ways of saying "a lot" out there ("a lot" is a nice one), so if you happen to catch yourself saying "metric butt-ton" in your work (here I'm imagining a poorly received PowerPoint presentation), I'd suggest you pause for a second and put maybe just a butt-smidge more effort into your writing.
Numbers are often listed after software names to indicate new, presumably improved versions. The same phrase has also been applied to newly improved things that aren't software products. Got a really great sandwich, better than existing sandwiches? Then say hello to Sando 2.0.
Which will actually give you pretty bad gas. I'd wait a few months for the first service pack to come out before installing this myself.
By extrapolating back moving averages of weighted chuckle-acceptance curves, linguistic scientists theorize that this must have been clever for about 10 seconds in 1995. One wonders if the venture capitalist who originally thought it up had any idea of the banality he was about to unleash upon the world.
"Ohhhhhh, that's going to ruin conversations for years, isn't it?"
This particular cliche is even more devastating when you consider how it's used by marketers today. Advertising a new and improved anything with an old and creaky cliche is a pretty great way to demonstrate that you don't understand concepts like "new" and "improved" and that you might not be cut out for a position in "advertising," or really any profession where you can use scissors unsupervised.
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"And by 'XX,' I Mean 'YY'"
This is a particularly obnoxious snowclone, the "XX" in this one referring to a mundane description that has just been used, now quickly redefined to be something hilariously insulting. Here's a typical example of this snowclone in the wild:
"Your muffins were really great! And by 'great' I mean 'gas-inducing.'"
HOLY SHIT WHAT A HUGE MUFFIN-SLAM OUT OF NOWHERE.
This one seems to be especially popular on the Internet, with Internet funny guys trying to be Internet funny guys. (Private note for the people who are now scouring through all my old columns looking for proof I'm a hypocrite: Yes, I've almost certainly used it. You got me. You win.)
You are the winner here.
But I'm not proud of it, and I'm certainly not using it anymore. Still, you can sort of see why it became so popular. A large element of humor is surprise -- you set the audience up to think you're saying one thing, and then with a couple words they realize that you were actually saying something else entirely. (It's called the incongruity-resolution theory of humor, and I'd encourage you to read up on it if you're ever interested in reading the driest, crumbliest shit ever written about yuks and laffs.) This cliche fulfills exactly that role, only it does it in the most labored, clumsy way possible. It's the exact opposite of cleverness, the antithesis of humor.
Also, somewhat frighteningly, of all the cliches listed here, it's almost certainly the one I'll forget about and accidentally use myself at some point in the future.
And by "the future," I mean-