Sometimes More Words Are Better

cowas come home

Economy of language is usually preferable to verbosity, but sometimes more words are better. When we were visiting friends recently, our host, disputing something his wife said, replied, “What you say flows from the bull’s anus.” It was refreshing alternative to the retort “That’s bull shit” and made everybody, including his wife, chuckle. Maybe refreshing is the wrong word to describe any sentence that has the word “anus” in it, but it’s probably the use of this anatomical term that makes the quip work. It instantly calls to mind the usual “bull shit” idiom, but achieves a comic effect by making it literal. An idiom generally can’t be understood by its literal meaning. When we hear the phrase “bull shit,” we don’t think of a literal bull’s feces, just as “kicking the bucket” doesn’t normally conjure up an actual bucket, and in its literal sense it has nothing to do with dying.  It’s hard to see how we can get along without using such idioms from time to time, and it’s even harder to come up with the sort of comic alternative my friend managed.

So George Orwell’s advice to avoid using any metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print is difficult to follow and maybe not always wise.  Take the idiom “That’s music to my ears.” It’s says so much with just five words, and any alternative– “I really like hearing that”–sounds banal.

Certain hackneyed turns of speech that don’t really qualify as idioms are another matter. A couple of years ago, I was talking to someone who used the phrase “at the end of the day” repeatedly. After that, I started to notice everybody using it. At the end of the day, it gets pretty tiresome. Like the equally overused “when all is said and done,” “at the end of the day” serves to introduce a conclusion. It’s a completely unnecessary alternative to the one-word “finally” or “ultimately.” The same is true of “at this point in time,” which usually just means “now.”

A phrase that has recently become very common is “bat-shit crazy.” I suspect it’s here to stay as long as the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party continues to make its favoured candidates front runners in the race for the presidential nomination. No other phrase quite captures them.

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