September 4, 2009
There are those who wince and curse whenever a TV pundit or sports spieler speaks the familiar words, “at the end of the day.” This usually announces that what follows will be empty of meaning. Even when the pundit has something of consequence to say, those six words anaesthetize the listener, encouraging them to miss the point. No wonder Jeremy Butterfield’s book, Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare (Oxford University Press), places “at the end of the day” right at the head of the “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions in the English Language.”
My own reaction to this champion banality differs slightly, for personal reasons. It induces in me feelings of nostalgia for my youth. In the middle of the last century, when I was a junior sports writer, “at the end of the day” was already marked as laughable and those who used it were suspected of pretension. Whenever it appeared in a story, my mentors on the sports desk of The Globe and Mail would sigh, roll their eyes and otherwise indicate their contempt for careless writing. I suspect I enjoy it now because it was my first journalism cliche, the first lodged in my memory by the disdain of knowing colleagues.
That’s not quite the equivalent of a first love, but as part of a boy’s education, it has similar nostalgia value. Did I ever actually use it in a story? I hope not. I like to think that observing all those rolled eyes saved me.
Long ago the same expression appeared in religious writing to invoke the end of the world. In 1980, its reputation was spread by the most popular musical of recent decades, Les Miserables, which enshrined it in the lyric of a typically clumsy song ( “You’ve gotta pay your way at the end of the day”). Its remarkable longevity in almost every possible context indicates that it has a purpose.
Aside from hinting at the seriousness of anyone using it, “at the end of the day” works as a filler-phrase, a more formal, more studied version of “you know” or “like.” It’s now a classic among cliches.
There are occasions when tradition and custom seem to force us into cliche. Much of what we read indicates that we are (in a Christopher Hitchens phrase) “fishing exclusively from a tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions.” Research has recently demonstrated that on about half the occasions when the word “quintessentially” appears, it’s married to a nationality or a place; we call something “quintessentially Australian” or “quintessentially French” or perhaps “quintessentially New York.”
Butterfield’s book, based on a computerized search of the two-billion-word compendium that holds data for the Oxford English Dictionary, cites “at this moment in time” and “with all due respect” for their omnipresent hatefulness and “shouldn’t of ” and “fairly unique” as examples of popular terms arising from misuse of the language. He took his title, Damp Squid, from the mistake people make when they want to describe something as a failure and borrow the term “damp squib,” meaning a firework that fails to go off. Then, misunderstanding the root of the metaphor, they pronounce or spell it “squid,” leaving us with a picture of water on a fast-swimming marine cephalopods with eight arms. Of course, a squid should always be wet, which rather reduces the effect of calling it damp. That title surprised me because I had never encountered “damp squib.” My guess is that the book will increase the number of times the mistake is made, but only Oxford will know for sure.
A boss I endured in my youth told me early in our relationship that he favoured “forward planning.” His voice spoke of stern commitment to management principles. Afflicted as I was by the frightened politeness of the young, I lacked the nerve to say that I found it more useful to practise backward planning. Up to this moment, the word “forward” remains a favourite of those who dream of speaking in impressive sentences. In the last 10 years or so, “going forward” has become a pestilence; there are those who can’t speak of the future without using it. David Beckham, asked about some possible turn in his career, replied: “Going forward, who knows?”
A later boss of mine refused to accept the meaning of “literally”; he used it, whenever possible, when he meant “metaphorically.” He sometimes described an incident that embarrassed him with the phrase, “I was literally caught with my pants down,” producing an unfortunate mental image.
It can be a pleasure watching a first-class writer carefully evading cliches. Last week, as I collected some of my thoughts on this subject, I happened to read the 2008 American novel City of Thieves by David Benioff. From a distance, it looks like a dangerous cliche trap. Benioff chose so many familiar themes (a selfconsciously virginal hero, Leningrad under siege in the Second World War, a champion Soviet partisan sniper who happens to be a lovable young woman) that a reader can’t help but sense the cliches that lurk offstage, a source of constant danger. But Benioff dances past all the dangers, never loses his youthful energy of style and honours his characters by giving each of them a unique voice. Not one of them appears to have wandered in from another novel.
Martin Amis titled a book of his literary essays The War Against Cliches, placing this question at the centre of good writing. As a reader and reviewer he learned to hate the sight of fatigued and frayed language. The heat was stifling, she rummaged in her bag, he went ballistic, she laughed in spite of herself, someone broke the silence. Amis’s essays indict John Fowles for phrases like “He managed a wan smile” and Michael Crichton for “stunned silence” as well as “unearthly cry” and “deafening roar.” Amis suggests Crichton’s books are dominated by “herds of cliches, roaming free.” As for Thomas Harris, he’s “a serial murderer of English sentences” and his books “a necropolis of prose.”
Amis works hard, and successfully, to make prose that’s not tired. A great English critic, Frank Kermode, suggested the exceptional effort required: “Amis early acquired a habit of vigilance, of stopping cliches at the frontier.” Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom from cliches.