Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “cliches”

How Cliché: More of That “F” List


A continuation of more sayings with the beginnings of “F.”

(To go over with a) Fine-Tooth Comb: While combs have been around since the ancient Egyptians dressed out their locks, the term “fine-tooth comb” is from the front half of the nineteenth century when a fine-tooth comb was used to find nits, those teeny lice eggs that lodge in hair. Using a fine-tooth comb means to look thoroughly, carefully to find something. Nit-picker comes to mind, so watch out for those who carry a fine tooth comb.

image: liceworld
Combing through the evidence requires the right tool.

(to have a) Finger in every pie: Being involved in many activities to the point of being too involved is the essence of this saying. Shakespeare, once again, is credited with this saying, which comes from Henry VIII, when the Duke of Buckingham says of Cardinal Wolsey, “No man’s pie is freed from his ambitious finger.”

First Things First: This is a familiar saying and dates from the nineteenth century, yet it might not be as well known that there is more to the saying: “First Things First, Second Things Never.” This said by Shirley Conran in Superwoman.

Fish Out of Water. Being out of one’s element is not a comfortable feeling. It no doubt was quite noticeable that a fish does not survive long being out of its element of water. St. Athanasius around 373 A.D. is credited to putting down this observation. Over time others have used this expression including John Wycliffe, Geoffrey Chaucer. It is a cliché in present use.

Take a deep breath when venturing out of one’s element might be helpful

Fit to Be Tied. To be angry enough to be prevented from doing damage is certainly being angry. James Joyce in Ulysses used the line to express the deep feeling of anger: “I was fit to be tied.” So when a person says they are all tied up at present perhaps they are dealing with anger issues.

Flattery Will Get You Nowhere. Appealing to one’s vanity might work with some people, but not for all. Cicero was among those who warned against flattery, but a more modern application appears in Ellery Queen’s 1971 A Fine and Private Place as “Flattery will get you nowhere, Queen,” in response to an insulting comment. This leads to another aspect of the saying which is “Flattery will get you everywhere” in response to a compliment.

Fly Off the Handle. Losing one’s temper can be alarming. It can create analogies such as when a hammer comes off the handle when striking a blow. An American term from the nineteenth century, it’s still in use today.

Then again, there can be a different perspective on the saying.

Food for Thought. Information to ponder. Food for the stomach and thoughts for the brain. Combining the two concepts brings about this saying implying that the brain can chew and digest information much like the stomach can process food. Erasmus stated in his sixteenth century Adagia: “Nor try to put courteous conversation in to the minds of impudent men, for speech is the food of thought.” Mark Twain added his twist in the 1889 A Connecticut Yankee: “there was food for thought there.”

For the Birds. Not of much use; seemingly worthless. A definite explanation is not confirmed, yet it is thought this an American slang from the early twentieth century. The expression refers to how birds would search through horse droppings for seeds. Some construe this as meaning the referred situation is “horse apples” or that is worthless.

This stack is for the birds

Forty Winks. A short nap. It’s thought Willian Langland in 1377 coined the term “wink” meaning sleep when he wrote “Thenne Wakede I of my wink” (“Then I woke from my sleep). As is the “forty winks” this might be attributed to an 1872 Punch magazine article referring to the long, tedious reading of certain church articles. The comment made in the article indicated that after reading thirty-nine of the articles forty winks might be required. Perhaps the meaning is that some readings induce sleep.

Fresh as a Daisy. Full of energy, well rested. Dickens used this expression in the 1845 The Cricket on the Hearth: “She is presently came bouncing back–the saying is as fresh as any daisy; I say fresher.” As daisy means “days eye” in Old English, referring to the yellow center. The daisy, like many other flowers, closes its petals in the evening and reopens them in the morning. The center being revealed once again is freshly ready to face the day.

From the Bottom of One’s Heart. Sincerely meant. The 1545 Book of Common Prayer states, “Be content to forgive from the bottom of the heart all that the other hath trespassed against him.” While a cliché, it is one that is still in use and aptly applicable, and I mean that sincerely.

So many more sayings from the “F” list, yet we move on. Any surprises from the list? Any sayings missed?

How Cliché: That “F” list


Face the Music: to meet with consequences. An American saying that derived from the theater. An actor on stage would face the orchestra pit, and the audience. If the audience was a rough lot facing the music meant the actor had a tough performance ahead.

One way of facing the music (ufficoriroma.net)

Fair and Square: just with equity. Found in the 17th century the term is redundant since “fair” and “square” are similar in meaning. A “square deal” has similar meaning.

Fair to Middling: mediocre. In mid-nineteenth century America, Artemus Ward wrote in His Travels “The men are fair to middling” meaning things are so-so. Look over “Can’t complain.”

Mmm, average? (thefreedictionary)

Far and Wide: affecting those over great distances. One of the oldest clichés about, dating back to the year of 900. The Old English states it as, “feorr and wide.” Shakespeare added it to Romeo and Juliet with the line from Act Four, Scene Two: “I stretch it out for that word “broad”; which added to the goose, proves thee far and wide a broad goose.”

Feast or Famine: an overabundance or a severe deficit. The original expression stated: “either feast or fast.” During the twentieth century the original changed to the present form of “feast or famine.” Though cliché, it is a term that seems to remain applicable.

(Have a) Field Day: enjoy an outing or occasion. An expression from the 1700s that refers to the military proceeding with maneuver practices. The term then began to appear in the 1800s to civilian matters, such as schools taking students out on excursions. It can also mean to enjoy oneself away from the usual, expected routine or even to immerse in criticizing someone, as in the press having a field day with discovering an unsavory situation about a celebrity or politician.

My kind of field day (Reddit)

(To not care or not worth) A fig: worthless. In the Mediterranean area figs are plentiful, so if something is plentiful it’s not considered as valuable. However, in other parts of the world, such as England, figs have to be imported, so they would have value. This makes it interesting when Shakespeare used the expression in his Henry plays. Why did Shakespeare use the expression. I’m not sure–it’s Greek to me.

Filled to the brim: fulfilled to the absolute possibility. Both Shakespeare and Gilbert applied this cliché in their plays to create the meaning of utmost fulfillment as found Antony and Cleopatra (3:13): “He will fill thy wishes to the brimme” and in The Mikado‘s description of the three maids as “Filled to the brim with girlish glee.”

Or is this better for “My cup overflows”? (blogspot)

There are plenty more expressions for the “F” section. Stay tuned…

Any surprises in the discovered meaning?

How Cliché: The “E” List


The Early Bird Catches the Worm: the first one there enjoys success. In 1605 William Camden included this phrase in his book of proverbs and it’s become a standard.

Yummy for those who like their early worms

Easier Said Than Done: talking is sometimes more readily done than action. The phrase is also known as sooner or better said than done. The earlier expression appears in the Vulgate Bible and the latter in the 1546 proverbs of John Heywood.

Easy As Rolling Off a Log: not much effort required. Mark Twain gets the credit for this expression from his A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court published in 1889. The expression is similar to Easy as Pie.

James makes log rolling easy

Eat One’s Cake and Have It Too: to have it both ways. Once again John Heywood has this in his collection of proverbs. There is something about how we want to eat our cake but to hang on to it as well. Insert something besides “cake” and it still makes sense.

Every Man for Himself: looking out for oneself. Chaucer coined this expression in The Knight’s Tale indicating if a person didn’t watch out for himself no one else would.

Every Tom, Dick, and Harry: Everyone, especially those in the lower classes. Shakespeare used Tom, Dick, and Francis in Henry IV. The expression can be found in the 1815 Farmer’s Almanac. Even John Adams tried it out in 1818, saying “Tom, Dick, and Harry were not to censure them.”

An uncommonly common trio

What “E” clichés can you add to the list?

How Cliché: The “B” List


The “B” section is booming with cliché phrases. All these are from Christine Ammer’s Have a Nice Day–No Problem: A Dictionary of Clichés.

The worst backseat drivers | Insurance.com
A backseat driver can be found anywhere

Backseat driver: unwanted advice.
In the 1920’s, those who could afford to do so, engaged a chauffer to drive them. The chauffer sat up front and the passenger or employer sat in the back and gave their driver instructions. Today the term applies to someone giving what they perceive as helpful advice, usually to the chagrin to the person doing the task. Other applicable phrases are Armchair General and Monday-Morning Quarterback.

Back to square one: back to the beginning
Though it sounds like a math problem, thoughts on this one are related to games where the start is a square, as in hopscotch or in a number of board games. Putting in hard work only to start over is frustrating and this term goes with back to the drawing board when the blueprints don’t pan out.

Salt mine Memes
And put some pepper in your efforts…

Back to the salt mines: returning to work
At one point in history, Russian prisoners during communist times were sent to work in the Siberian salt mines. While coming off of break can be tough, it probably is easier going that chipping away at rocks.

(The) ball is in your court: take your turn
A current expression from sports, which is attributed in the mid 20th century which is said when one person is a)being polite b)pushing the other person to take their turn c)a strategy to get the other person to reveal their intentions through action or words.

Bald face or barefaced liar/lie: an obvious, if not bold untruth.
Bare could be brazen, but it is likely is related to “beardless” which connects to only the young (not old enough to grow a beard yet) could so unashamedly tell such outrageous lies.

Idiom: Barking up the wrong tree (meaning & examples)
Categorically funny to Cocoa

(To) bark up the wrong tree: waste time or effort going in the wrong direction
Once when hunting racoons with dogs was prevalent, sometimes dogs, so pleased with themselves, would bound up to a tree so sure they had caught the varmint, would bark to their owners their success. Raccoons, being the clever creatures that they are often led the dogs astray by jumping to another tree or applying some other witty escape strategy. For those out there thinking they have solved the problem through what seems to be a long and productive chase, they might find themselves baying at empty branches and must go back to square one.

(To have) bats in one’s belfry: deemed slightly crazy
Bats in flight fly in a more irregular than regular pattern. At one time people watching bat flight thought the irregular flight reflected how bats thought–erratically. Since then it has been proven bats have a sophisticated flying system that employs sonar which keeps them from bumping into obstacles. While belfrys are not much in current use, one might be considered batty if their thoughts or speaking seems random, which might at first seem like an insult, yet it’s actually a compliment since bats are considered sophisticated creatures.

(To) beard the lion: to take a risk
If you haven’t heard this term recently, that makes two of us. Considered cliché for over a century, this phrase has Biblical roots coming from when David related how by grabbing a lion by its beard he slew him. Facing danger and vanquishing it is one thing, grabbing lions is quite another. Granted, David showed his bravery. Look how this lion’s beard–that’s up close and personal.

Why do men have more facial hair than women? - Quora
Bearding the lion (looks more like a goatee)

Beat (scare) the living daylights out of: to punish or scare someone tremendously
A 19th century American colloquialism for a person’s internal organs was “daylights.” To punish or scare someone so severely that there innards would fall out is indeed severe.

Bed or roses: an implied place of comfort
Metaphorically, lying in a bed of roses sounds pleasant, being surrounded by the fragrant petals. However, there are thorns to consider. And a literal bed of roses demands constant care, so this phrase implies the opposite, as in the situation is not comfortable.


How Cliché: Still Taking “A” Look


Back again this month as we continue looking at the clichés found in the “A” section of Christine Ammer’s Have a Nice Day–No Problem.

All that glitters is not gold - Meme Generator

All that glitters is not gold: what you see is not always the truth.
Though is not exactly the same wording the intent is found in Proverbs 13:7, NIV: “One person pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.” This expression is traced to a Middle Ages proverb and in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice during the suitor scene it is stated, “All that glisters is not gold.” It is an apt saying that has its time and place.

All to the good: everything will turn out well.
“Good” used to be an accounting term applied to overall profit. If something was “all to the good” that meant the outcome was profitable. Today it’s more of a term that indicates the situation might have had some bad moments, yet in the end it all worked out. Another one of those clichés that depends on perspective or use.

All wool and yard wide: the real item–not a fake.
Once upon a day in the yards-good industry, a person would be assured the measurement and quality of the goods was true by stating it was measured by the standard yard. This was an assurance that the item was genuine and substandard measurements were not used. Personally, never heard of this one.

I am Along for the Ride - Happy Grumpy Cat 2 | Meme Generator
Being passive doesn’t mean being unhappy

Along for the ride: passive participation
“I’m just along for the ride.” Might be considered as more of a clarifying statement than an actual cliche. It’s relatively new being traced to the mid-twentieth century.

Another day, another dollar: another work day accomplished.
Back in the day a day’s work would equal a dollar. Today the term is not so literal as it is figurative and is probably stated with a facetious or ironic tone.

Any port in a storm: accepted relief in a desperate situation, even if it isn’t the first choice.
Found in the 18th century in different plays, but thought to have been in use previously. One of those sayings that can truly fit certain occasions.

What is the name of the "a-ok" sign "meme" (if you would call it that)?:  OutOfTheLoop
Pacha agrees that it’s all A-OK

A-OK: just about perfect.
The term “OK” is abbreviated from “okay.” The term “A-OK” is attributed to NASA’s Colonel Power who misunderstood Alan Shepard’s “okay” confirmation that the flight was going well as “A-OK.” It entered into the everyday lexicon and indicates that everything is excellent, the best it can be. That is, unless, one is being sarcastic and applies the term as irony.

A poor thing but mine own: as in “it’s not much, but it’s mine.”
This expression might have been derived from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It when Audrey says, “An ill-favour’d thing, sir, but mine own.” There are many variations of this and I heard it recently in an Australian whodunnit when the sheriff defended one of her officers by saying, “He might be (uncomplimentary term), but he’s our (term). So the expression can take on the sense of ownership pride, loyalty, identity, but then if it came from Shakespeare there are a multiple interpretations already implied.

As the crow flies: the most direct route
Probably originated before the 18th century, the expression is given when a person is getting directions. It should be duly noted that crows can fly over traffic jams, don’t have to stop at toll booths, and avoid gas stations. Then again they don’t have cruise control or tunes while traveling.

At one fell swoop: happening all at once, usually a description of a singular violent incident.
Shakespeare, once again, is the author of this expression which appears in Macbeth. “Fell” at that time meant “fierce” and when it applies to the metaphorical line of how Macduff’s family was brutally murdered as a hawk might swoop down and kill chickens, it is quite appropriate.

Oh I'm not at your beck and call? Yeah that's because I actually have a  life - Koala can't believe it | Meme Generator
So leaf me alone for awhile, ‘kay?

At one’s beck and call: being at someone’s demands.
Oh, we’ve been there, right? When it is required to meet a person’s every need, call, wish, command. “Beck” is no longer in use, but it means “a silent gesture” as in finger beckon or nod of the head. “Call” is to vocalize a need. To be at someone’s beck and call means to be in someone’s line of sight to watch for both a silent gesture or a vocalized instruction. Isn’t that why texting was invented?

At one’s fingertips: instantly ready.
There is an ancient Roman proverb that says, “To know as well as one’s fingers and toes,” meaning it’s readily available. Fingers transformed into fingertips in the USA around the 19th century. I don’t know about you, but my fingertips aren’t always instantly ready. Mixing up the meatloaf puts fingertips on standby status, among other occupations that come to mind.

At this moment/point in time: at a particular time.
My editing fingers get itchy at this phrase. “Wordy” is the penciled side note. Just say “now.” There is also the expression, “At this stage of the game” for sports fans. Where did this phrase originate? It’s thought Watergate leaned heavily on this construct. It was cliché before it left the building.

Are you feeling self-conscious of these expressions now that you realize they could be cliché candidates? Or have you found one that you will casually drop in a conversation some time? They are there at your fingertips and it is A-OK to use them at your beck and call.

How Cliché: A Look


As a writing teacher I wince whenever my students add in “The author paints a picture…” *Sigh* I remind my students to strive for originality. I really feel for the essay readers since I only have thirty offenders and they must read hundreds of cliché-ridden essays.

Previous posts dealt with those everyday expressions that we have little idea what they mean through the monthly column of “Why We Say.” It ran its course and now it’s off to another dictionary of expression use: Have a Nice Day–No Problem by Christine Ammer.

Ammer scrutinizes over 3,000 sayings that have been used, and overused, to become relegated as cliché. She informs reads of the origin and whether the expression is obsolete or still acceptable. Considering the book is copyrighted in 1992, current use could be questionable, and there are no doubt new clichés that could be entered. There is also the consideration that not all clichés are questionable, and are actually appropriate, if not useful, to make a point. One person’s cliché, then, could be another’s coup de grace (to paraphrase a cliché).

We start in the “A” section:

Today's News, Entertainment, Video, Ecards and more at Someecards. |  someecards.com | Innocence quotes, Funny confessions, Absence makes the heart  grow fonder
Some truths must be faced

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: separation can create a longing
The first line in an anonymous poem published in 1602 it then became the last line of a song by T. Haynes Bayly, “The Isle of Beauty,” in 1850. It has since been said and resaid. The opposite expression would be “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Achilles’ heel: a person’s weak spot.
Go back to Greek myths to find where the mother of the great warrior Achilles wanted to protect him. She held her baby boy by the heel and dipped him in the River Styx to supposedly make him invincible. However, during the battle of Troy, Paris, Hector’s brother, shot Achilles in the heel and brought him down to his death. Still current.

The Acid Test: a means of establishing the truth or validity of someone or something.
This comes from the practice of determining true gold by applying nitric and hydrochloric acid, which dissolves the metal. It became a figurative term and is still current.

Actions speak louder than words: what a person does is more telling than what is said.
A proverb stemming from ancient Greek and other cultures, it still applies aptly to today.

Add insult to injury: increasing harm caused.
There is a Greek fable in which a bald man goes to smack a fly that landed on his head. He misses, which incites the fly to ponder what the man will do with the insult added to the injury. Well-used cliché.

Afraid of ones own shadow – Mystery of Existence
Mickey in the Haunted House (1929)

Afraid of your shadow: extremely timid.
This expression has been stated by Sir Thomas More as, “Who may lette her feare her owne shadowe,” although it can be traced back to Plato.

(To go) against the grain: going in the wrong direction of the natural wood fibers.
While the actual meaning applies to wood, this expression has evolved to mean more towards something becoming an irritant. Shakespeare stated this expression eloquently in Coriolanus, “Preoccupied with what you rather must do than what you should, made you against the grain to voice him consul.” Dickens picked up the phrase and placed it in Edwin Drood–it might have be a cliché by then.

All in a day’s work: part of what one does for a living–expected.
This expression is found in the 18th century and was used figuratively and literally, as it is now.

All over but the shouting: the outcome is determined, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Thought to have originated in the 19th century as a phrase found in sporting events, yet it applies to other events as well and is used today.

This depends on one’s perspective–and what tactic is applied

All’s fair in love and war: all and any tactic is appropriate.
Found in some form from Chaucer to Maxwell Anderson and has been paraphrased to suit occasions as in “All’s fair in love and war and politics.”

While some of these expressions could be considered everyday expressions or idioms or proverbs, others are allusions, and a couple are metaphors. Be they cliché? Chime in. The Acid Test is if upon hearing the saying you grit your teeth since its use goes against the grain to hear them used.

More “A” explorations next month. We are far from over, so don’t be shouting.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: