Anthrocide is the official website for D.L. Hamilton, author of several Christian novels and essays.

Archive for January, 2008

Fractured Clichés

The use of clichés in writing is considered a poor practice, but in everyday speech they are, of course, common—that being what makes them clichés. Few people critique casual conversation (mercifully) so their use in that venue is largely ignored. But some clichés have gotten tangled. What these fractured clichés actually say becomes a nonsensical version of a phrase that at one time was somewhat intelligible.

A common one that has mysteriously engendered some debate is “I couldn’t care less” which has been twisted by many people into “I could care less.” A friend of mine was notorious for this one. The obvious meaning of the original phrase was that the speaker’s level of concern about the matter under discussion was at absolute zero, hence there was no possible way that he or she could have any lesser amount of concern. That is, the speaker cared nothing about the matter or, “could not [possibly] care [any] less.” To leave out the negative makes the statement the opposite. To say “I could care less” communicates at least some degree of concern, similar to saying “I’ve tasted worse” regarding a food item—it suggests more positive than negative. I’ve actually heard people argue over which is the correct version but the answer is obvious.

Another twisted cliché is used when a person is said to have done something just for the sake of chalking up another victory, most often as a rather derisive statement. The phrase is, “He [she] just wanted another notch on his [her] belt.” This usage is nonsensical. The actual phrase intended here is “…notch on his gun.” Anyone who watched movies in the ’40s or movies/TV in the ’50s or ’60s saw plenty of westerns. A common element of westerns was the gunslinger or bad guy who was proud of the number of opponents he had slain in gun duels. For each kill he would callously file a mark somewhere on his pistol. Thus each conquest merited “another notch on his gun.” Since these villains seemingly killed just to prove they could, the saying matched its general usage. Somewhere along the line, however, the result of dieting wherein sufficient weight loss could require one to need a new notch (or hole) farther up his or her belt got intermingled with the saying. Hence, people who score another victory are incorrectly said to have put another notch on their belts, when in fact there is no connection whatsoever between being victorious and belt-tightening.

One other case of mixing two clichés into nonsense is when one says something to the effect of, “When I heard that, a light went off in my head,” the intended meaning being that something dawned on the person. This is an unfortunate mix of “a light came on (or dawned)” and “an alarm went off in my head.” Light as a representation of sudden realization or “enlightenment” undoubtedly goes back to ancient times. For decades cartoons and comic art have used a light bulb glowing over the head of someone as representative of an epiphany or an idea. But in every case it is the light coming ON that indicates someone “getting it.” In an entirely different vein, something—especially something seemingly inconsequential—that suddenly puts one on the alert for trouble is said to have caused “alarm bells [or an alarm] to go off in one’s head.” Although perhaps a bit ironic, it is perfectly normal to refer to the sounding of a siren or an alarm bell as “going off” when it might be more proper to say it came on. Nevertheless referring to a sounding alarm that way is commonly understood and accepted usage. A lamp or bulb going from unlit to lit, however, is NEVER said to have gone “off.” A light that goes “off” is always one that was lit and has gone dark. Thus one who says he or she encountered something that made a “light go off” in his or her head should properly be understood to have suddenly gone stupid in that respect.

Hopefully none of this will be interpreted as me being pretentious. It’s just that I read one of these in a newspaper quote today and, well, a little light went off in my head and I just had to put another notch in my belt even though probably most of you could care less.

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