Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Dull as Ditchwater: a dozen interesting things about clichés

1.    I asked 100 people to complete the phrase, ‘As blind as a...’. There were no surprises.

2.    Bats are not blind...

3.    But bees do have knees.

4.    These...
            As dead as a doornail
            A fool’s paradise
            A foregone conclusion
            A tower of strength
            As white as driven snow
            Bag and baggage
            Bated breath
            Cold comfort
            Come full circle
            Dog will have its day
            Give the devil his due
Hoist with his own petard
I have not slept one wink
In my heart of hearts
In my mind’s eye
Love is blind
More in sorrow than in anger
More sinned against than sinning
Neither here nor there
Not a mouse stirring
Play fast and loose
Stood on ceremonies
Sweets to the sweet
The be all and end all
Till the crack of doom
To make a virtue of necessity
To the manner born
Wear my heart on my sleeve

...were all coined by William Shakespeare.

5.    Bored business people at conferences have fun with Cliché Bingo, ticking off the clichés as they roll off the boss’s tongue until someone shouts (or whispers) ‘House!’

6.    Bob’s your uncle – The original ‘Bob’ was Conservative Prime Minister Robert (Bob) Cecil who made an unpopular appointment of his nephew Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1900.

7.    A proper Charlie – meaning someone made to look a fool. The original ‘Charlie’ was the English jockey Charlie Smirke who name was used as Cockney rhyming slang for ‘berk’. But the story doesn’t start there; ‘berk’ was itself a shortening of ‘Berkley Hunt’, used by Cockneys as rhyming slang for a rather more offensive insult.

8.    What the Dickens...! has nothing to do with Charles Dickens – ‘dickens’ is an old name for the devil.

9.    But Dickens is responsible for giving us red tape meaning obstructive bureaucracy. 

10. A pig in a poke and Let the cat out of the bag both refer to the old country fair con of secretly switching a cat for a suckling pig before handing it over to the unsuspecting customer.

11. Pigs might fly probably has its origin in Lewis Carroll’s poem from Through the Looking Glass:

      'The time has come' the walrus said, To talk of many things: Of shoes - and ships - and sealing wax, Of cabbages - and kings - And why the sea is boiling hot - And whether pigs have wings.'

12. Famous American producer Sam Goldwyn once demanded to ‘have some new clichés’.


  1. Great list. Will keep them in mind while I write.

    But aren't "new" cliches a contradiction in terms?

  2. Yes, Ralfast, that's the joke of it. Sam Goldwyn was famous for making these contradictory statements. Some more of his:
    'Include me out.'
    'Don't pay any attention to the critics-don't even ignore them.'
    'I don't want any "yes-men" around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.'
    'I'm willing to admit that I may not always be right, but I am never wrong.'