Throughout my professional life, I’ve worked hard to avoid using clichés in my writing (except in headlines!) and have tried to be careful with my use of idioms.
After three decades, I must say it’s been an emotional roller coaster.
I don’t know if my attention to the words I choose even amounts to a hill of beans.
Still, the English language, and our use and abuse of it, fascinates me. In his town hall meeting this morning, President Obama made a reference to “bean counters.”
I cringed. Does anyone under the age of, say, 40, even know what a bean counter is? That in this case, in the health-care debate (a debate that has also included many references to “reinventing the wheel”), it has nothing to do with beans?
The way we use language can break down barriers or form new ones. And clichés and idioms don’t help. They are, by their nature, old-fashioned. After all, the definition of “cliché” is “an overused expression” and it has to be used for a while before it wears out.
So many times, calling on clichés announces to the reader or listener that the writer or speaker is just plain old.
My 21-year-old daughter recently asked for my advice about how to handle a situation at work. Should she talk to her boss or leave it alone? “It won’t hurt to put in your two cents worth,” I told her. She stared at me blankly. “What does that mean?” she asked.
The expression (which hearkens back to a time long ago when postage was really two cents, and you could send a letter stating your opinion) really dated me.
Just as dangerous: cultural references writer Ralph Keyes calls “retrotalk.” Comparing someone to Eddie Haskell? Sure to confuse almost anyone under the age of 50 – the iconic show, “Leave It to Beaver,” the TV sitcom where Eddie lived, went off the air in 1963. In an article about this alarming trend, Keyes calls out media types who throw out references to Jimmy the Greek, Howard Beale, Joe Friday, and Rod McKuen.
Is there anyone under the age of 30 or even 40 who can tell me what any of those names signify (other than, maybe, Trivial Pursuit fanatics)?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to be a party pooper about this language thing; just trying to do the right thing. And let me tell you, it’s no walk in the park.