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The Origin of Eight Clichs

Paul M. Muchinsky*
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

*Unamused, indifferent, or entertained readers can contact the author at pmmuchin@uncg.edu.

English is a rich language that can be used to animate the human experience. A person skilled in word usage can paint a verbal picture as majestic as any of the grand masters could do with oil on canvas. Yet, we have found ways to befoul and despoil our beautiful language by banal clichs. These clichs become established means of communication and are reified in the process. But where do these clichs come from? How do they enter our language? I took it upon myself to track down the origin of eight clichs that I find to be particularly irritating. With great shame and guilt I confess to you that I have, in moments of weakness, invoked some of these deplorable linguistic crutches in my own orations. As part of my own therapeutic process of recovery I have rooted out their source. Tracing their origin was like trying to locate studies to include in a meta-analysis. It required intensive detective work, but I did get the job done. Without further ado, bear witness to the primal birth of these verbal vulgarities.

1. Herbert and Thelma Morton were childhood sweethearts, got married at 17, and celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. Shortly thereafter, Herbert passed away. Thelma was distraught over the loss of her life partner. She paid a visit to the Eternal Paradise Mortuary to select a coffin for her late husband. After much deliberation Thelma selected a beautiful rosewood coffin with brass fittings. Funeral director Clyde Wormer complimented Thelma on her choice of coffin. Then the conversation took a strange turn. 

Thelma: I want the best for my Herbie. He was such a wonderful man. Im going to bury him in the back yard in my garden.

Clyde: Im sorry, Mrs. Morton, but there are state laws regarding burial locations. You cannot bury a coffin in a back yard.

Thelma: But you dont understand! I dont want to be apart from my Herbie. We were inseparable. I want him buried in my garden so I can see his resting place whenever I wish.

Clyde: Like I said, Mrs. Morton, you cannot bury a coffin on private land.

Thelma: Oh dear, what should I do?

Clyde: I suggest you think outside the box.

Thelma: Are you talking cremation?

Clyde: Yes. You can keep his ashes in an urn in your house.

Thelma: Why didnt I come up with that? I kept thinking in the box.

2. Michigan celebrated the sesquicentennial anniversary of its statehood on January 26, 1987. The governor declared the entire year to be a year of celebration for the state. 365 cities and towns were selected to sponsor one day in the year. The governor not only wanted the large cities such as Flint, Dearborn, and Lansing to be a sponsor for a day but also many of the small towns that comprise the rural areas of the state. The celebratory year was kicked off by the day sponsored by Detroit. It was a glorious day, replete with speeches, galas, pomp, and circumstance. That day was followed by the day from Ann Arbor, which put on another splendid affair. And so it went, day after day. But suddenly a day arrived like no other. It was April 15th. There were all sorts of calamities that broke out that dayfloods, fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and a tidal wave on Lake Michigan. It was a terrible day. April 15, 1987, the day from Hell. Hell, Michigan 48169. You can look it up.

3. Otto Kleinschmidt is the chief inspector for quality control at the Geneva Clockworks Company. The company makes timepieces that are extremely accurate, recording time to a fraction of a second. Their products are so highly respected they are used by the International Olympic Committee. The key to the precision of their products is an extraordinary sense of balance between two timing mechanisms. The two mechanisms must be totally in balance to achieve precise time keeping. The balance is assessed by two highly sensitive levels. The first level measures balance to within one one-hundredths of an inch. If the timepiece fails to achieve this degree of balance, Kleinschmidt orders it back to the shop floor for rework. If the level indicates the timepiece has achieved this degree of balance, it advances to an even more precise test, a level that measures balance to one one-thousandths of an inch. Only after passing this second test is the timepiece certified as being ready for shipment. All the employees hold their collective breath when Kleinschmidt assesses the balance with his first level. They know only one of two outcomes are possible. Either Kleinschmidt will say, Take it back, it needs rework, or what they all hope to hear, Take it to the next level.

4. Every year the ancient town of Lochlassie, Scotland celebrates a high holy day. The day marks the slaying of a dragon that threatened the city with destruction thousands of years ago. The day is celebrated by a formal gathering that features high dances, high tea, and the eating of two special high dishes, curds and whey. Curds and whey are both dairy products and are used in the making of cheese. Over the years the locals came to agree on a single recipe for making curds, but there are two recipes for making whey. Most of the townspeople prefer the more modern recipe for making whey that is lower in cholesterol. The old high recipe for making whey has been used since antiquity. The responsibility for preparing the curds and whey fell to Elsie MacTavish and Maggie McGuiness. Elsie had been preparing the celebratory food for over 50 years. Maggie is learning the craft of food preparation from Elsie, as one day Maggie will assume Elsies role in this time-honored tradition. Elsie has developed her own distinctive recipe for whey that is enjoyed by most townspeople. Yet, she is sensitive to the old high recipe for whey that has been used for centuries. Elsie and Maggie debated at great length as to which recipe they would follow. Elsie was indifferent as to which recipe she would follow as she wanted to defer to Maggies preference. However, Maggie was very uncertain and couldnt decide between Elsies recipe and the high recipe. Elsie grew impatient with Maggies indecision and finally said, Make up you mind, Maggie. Either its my whey or the high whey.

5. The Ledbetter Manufacturing Company produces electrical relays used in heat conductors. The company produces relays in two sizes: small and large. After production the relays are sent to the packing department. The department has two customized packages for preparing the relays for shipment. Small relays go into a form-fitted envelope, and large relays go into an impact-resistant box. Both packing methods are customized to the product size. Ledbetter recently got a special order for relays that are mid-sized. As can be the case with highly bureaucratized companies, the sales department that procured the special order informed the production department, but no one bothered to inform the packing department. It wasnt long before the first mid-sized relay was produced, and in turn made its way to the packing department. Orville Stumphead, superintendent of the packing department, stared at the mid-sized relay in disbelief. It was too big for the envelope but too small for the box. He gathered his packing crew around him and said, We must find a way to expand the envelope.

6. The Oven Fresh Baking Company decided to market a new product besides their traditional bread and rolls. They would test market a line of croissants made of special dough that was light and fluffy. The company purchased the special dough which was shipped in 32-gallon drums. When asked when the company would kick off the new croissant project, company spokesperson Jim Turner said the dough would be rolled out next Tuesday.

7. The fire department has a special unit that responds to the spillage of hazardous material on highways, including acid, chemical, and petroleum spills. The unit, called HAZMAT, travels in a specially constructed vehicle whose doors are almost 3 feet above the road. The extra distance is designed to protect the HAZMAT crew from when they first step out onto the road. The HAZMAT crew has experimented with various types of protective footwear. They first tried heavy boots, but they were too bulky. It was easy to trip when the vehicle door first opened and they stepped down to the pavement. Likewise, snap-on galoshes were also found to be cumbersome. Currently the HAZMAT crew uses synthetic polymer rubbers that protect their feet yet do not impede stepping and walking. The HAZMAT crew is instructed to grab a safety handrail in the cab of the vehicle by the door and step directly down onto the pavement, one foot at a time. That spot where the first foot lands is where the rubber meets the road. [Authors Note: I had considered an earthier version for this clich. It involved a favorite place on Lovers Lane where amorous couples would park. In the interest of good taste I went with the HAZMAT version.]

8. Two disk jockeys at a radio station were discussing what music they were going to play during their respective time slots. The first DJ decided to play a selection of urban hip-hop and rap. He said he would be playing Dr. Dre, Little Bow Wow, Destinys Child, LL Cool J, and Snoop Dog. Hip-hop and rap were hot, so many different performers would be played during his time slot. The second DJ decided to play heavy metal. However, unlike the first DJ, this DJ decided to play the music of only one group whose songs were very popular and were climbing the charts. Said the second DJ, Im just playing Devils Advocate.

I didnt know if you were going to like this column or not, so I just decided to run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.

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