Opposite my apartment in Beirut there used to live an American-born English teacher called Marion Lanson. When she departed Lebanon, I inherited her 1949 Random House American College Dictionary, edited by one Clarence L Barnhart "with the Assistance of 355 Authorities and Specialists". I like "authorities" and "specialists" very much because we have largely abandoned such words.
I was keen to look up Mr Barnhart's definition of that plague of modern journalism, the cliché. "A trite, stereotyped expression, idea, practice, etc, as 'sadder but wiser', 'strong as an ox'." Alas, I fear these are imaginative expressions compared with the stuff we now consume. Mr. Barnhart's German translation of cliché – "klitsch" or "doughy mass" – seems more appropriate for the assaults on literacy that we commit today.
All this came to mind when I learned this week of the coup in Mauretania, where the army took power after President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi unwisely tried to fire some of his senior officers. Would tanks "roll" into the capital, I asked myself? Tanks always "roll", don't they? I have never actually seen a tank perform this extraordinary act but, clichés being what they are, my eye sped down the Mauretania story for my friendly "roll". And sure enough – perhaps because Mauretania doesn't have a lot of tanks – there it was. The president, said the agency report, "was arrested after military convoys rolled through the capital Nouakchott".
Why do we use these dead words? There is a dictionary of clichés on my desktop in Beirut and I heartily recommend Watson's Dictionary of Weasel Words by the Australian Don Watson.It contains one of my most hated clichés: core. As in "core issues", "core business" or "core learning outcomes". Rather like "key speakers" – of which I always refuse to be a member – these clichés attempt to smother idiocy with deep learning (or "core" learning, perhaps). What is this fascination with stale language? Let me rage. I hate all reports about wars where "the guns fall silent"; the retirement period for artillery being rather short, it's only a matter of time before the "clouds of war" begin to gather once more, when opponents are "pitted" against each other, when guns "soften up" their targets, and national governments complain about "terrorists" crossing (ergo: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan) "porous borders". In Iraq, we may experience a "spike" of violence, followed – of course – by a successful "surge".
And when the troops go home, they will become – yes, folks – "Iraqi war veterans", descendants of "Vietnam vets" or "D-Day veterans" or – I still remember when I used to interview these guys – "Dunkirk veterans". At least they will be spared the even more cliché-haunted battlefields of political elections where candidates invariably embark on a "campaign trail" and "lash out" at their opponents or – if "trailing in the polls" – will be "fighting for their political life". Undoubtedly, they will take part in a "war of words" – they may even indulge in a "blame game" – before securing a "landslide victory".
But we are all guilty. To my distress, I find that I thrice used the word "iconic" in my book The Great War for Civilisation Ye Gods! So we live on in the world of "credit crunches" and religious wars – remember how Protestants in Northern Ireland were always "staunch" and Catholics always "devout"? Indeed, "devout" is a definition more recently inherited by Muslims, unless they display violent tendencies, in which case they become "terrorist" or "extremist" or "militant" or – my favourite, this – "fiery": as in "the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr".
I guess we inherit some of this claptrap from advertising, where businessmen have "portfolios" and deal in "cutting edge" technology when they are not branding themselves as "events organisers". I first came across this as a definition of the job of the new husband of Sarkozy's ex, the Carla Bruni-lookalike Cécilia. But I think the job description could be broadened by the advertising boys. Couldn't Radovan Karadzic or his sidekick Mladic also be described as "events organisers" – in that they organised "events" at Srebrenica?
At which point the UN or the late Tony Blair or George Bush could announce that the "world community" would not "stand idly by" while such atrocities took place. They would, of course, be "pointing the finger" at the war criminals responsible, whose "banana republics" were "secretive regimes" which held on to power only by the use of secret police forces.
And what, ladies and gentlemen, are these secret police institutions called? The KGB, the Afghan Khad, the East German Stasi? Go on, shout it out before the next sentence! Why, they were always the "dreaded" secret police, weren't they? As opposed to our own thugs in those flamboyant "special forces" which are always... Yes, guess again what the word is? You've got it! They are always "ELITE" special forces, aren't they?
But it's time to leave this dead world. Yes, I know, I've left out those bureaucratic Labradors – "government watchdogs" – not to mention the nightclubs' "scantily clad" ladies. And in the American press, "officials say".
On balance, I think we use clichés not because they are easy, but because they are a kind of addiction. We find it very difficult to give them up because they make life easier, less responsible, more synthetic, less real. I think they lose readers. But we wordsmiths (no, not "hacks", for God's sake) feel all the better for it. Maybe it's a cliché to say this, but I find a lot of reporting is "a load of old cobblers". Besides the obvious "shoe-maker definition", I have to say that Mr Barnhart's dictionary provides a couple of other worthwhile definitions of cobblers: "a clumsy workman" and – better still – "a deep-dish fruit pie with a rich biscuit crust, usually on top."