The Cliché Jar
MSNBC has a new show at 3p.m. weekdays. The Cycle features a panel of four youngish commentistas who veer between fairly intelligent observations and self-congratulatory cleverness. It’s not a bad program, and it elevated itself today with a prop that’s long overdue in cable news land: the cliché jar.
Based on the ubiquitous tip jar, the cliché jar sits on a political talk show host’s or hosts’ desk. When anyone on set utters a designated cliché, he or she dumps a dollar in the jar. The Cyclists came up with a preliminary list of tax- or is it penalty- or maybe fine- or fee-worthy phrases, including ‘spiking the football’ (for premature and/or unseemly celebration).
I can’t remember other clichés they pegged, mainly because as soon as the cliché jar was announced, I started thinking of the words and phrases I’d add to the list of sloppy verbal seconds. Such as:
--‘Play into the narrative’ to mean ‘reinforce the stereotype.’ Or just ‘narrative’ to mean ‘story’ or ‘argument’ or ‘general perception.’
--‘Conversation’ to mean ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ or ‘discussion.’
--‘Optics’ to mean the way something looks – this word began as a fairly precise noun but has now morphed into a jargony weasel term that can mean ‘narrative’ and ‘conversation.’
--‘Draw a bright line between’ to mean attempting to make a distinction yet failing to do so (as in today: ‘Romney drew a bright line between tax and penalty.’)
--‘Laser focus’ to mean ‘desperation.’
--‘Dead heat’ to mean ‘close.’
--‘Candidates are human’ to mean ‘one particular candidate totally blew it.’
--.‘Polls are only a snapshot in time’ to mean ‘polls don’t mean much yet’ (but we do or commission them anyway because it makes our program/network look scientific and unbiased, and pollsters need to make money, too).
If one wanted to expand the cliché jar’s maw, one could add Oprah-type programs and the phrases/words that make our ears fall off. Such as:
--‘An emotional roller coaster’ to mean ‘emotional’ or ‘difficult.’
--‘Closure’ to mean either something unobtainable (no longer feeling bad about a very bad thing) or reaching some sort of terminal plateau in a ‘grieving process.’
--‘Grieving Process’ to mean mourning, feeling horribly unhappy about the death of someone you loved or admired, a kick in the gut or in the soul that does not sort itself out into pre-ordained stages.
--‘Healing’ to mean getting through another day, or reaching ‘closure’ (see above).
--‘Confront’ to mean ‘acknowledge’ or ‘try to understand’ (and never to mean ‘confront’)
--‘Hero’ to mean anyone who’s ever served in the military (or in public safety jobs), no matter what his or her record might be, and anyone who’s publically self-identified as gay, or as recipient of anything that conceivably can be classified as abuse, or just someone who talks about something on a talk show.
If we really wanted to have fun with cliché jars, we would plop them down on our own work desks. Back in the day, I could have inflated my IRA if I’d had such a jar during faculty meetings . . . or during editing of young scholars’ manuscripts . . . or certainly during scholarly conferences (if there were some way to get presenters to ante up). These days, business- and techno-jargon create many moneymaking opportunities. I invite you to network with your team-builders and dive deep so you can make a maximum cliché jar list, complete with optimum outcomes and social media integrations. (Kaching, kaching, kaching, kaching, kaching, kaching!)
The genius and challenge of a job- or area-specific cliché jar are to identify actual clichés, as distinguished from slogans, branding strategies, talking points, or discipline-specific terminology.
As I was writing the above teeny paragraph, I was thinking about the problems of identifying clichés when one’s talking or writing about sports (since almost all writing/talking about sports is a muscular exercise in cliché-stringing). And the Golf Channel was on (well, it didn’t turn itself on – I was checking in to see how Tiger was doing). And for some reason all the hush-mouthed commentators were talking about ‘giving back.’
Uh, golf? Giving back? Two nouns/noun phrases that don’t go together in any conceivable grammatical construction?
A few golfers have founded or are active in charities, but the golfertators this evening didn’t seem to be referring to rarified altruism. Instead, ‘giving back’ seems to mean ‘playing well’ or ‘attending a tournament’ or ‘granting a self-involved interview.’
If the cliché jar were perched on the 19th-hole bar . . . windfall!
Seriously, though (kaching! – another crisp dollar deposited in a blog-stylistic cliché jar), the idea of a cliché jar could help just about all of us who ever use words in our jobs. If we work with other people, a cliché jar could be a way to sharpen our team’s (kaching!) communicatory effectiveness (clunk!. . . not a cliché, but an idea for another jar, the an-euphonious locution jar). Proceeds could be used to sponsor a starving third-world child or to pay for the first round at TGIF. If we mainly write in isolation, the cliché jar could up our awareness (kaching! clunk!) of tepid, flaccid writing. And, no doubt soon, pay for a bottle of bourbon.
Add the spoils from the an-euphonious locution jar, and we could sponsor not only one starving child but instead an entire country’s nutrition efficacy efforts (kaching! clunk!). That’s called thinking outside the box (kaching!) in order to facilitate better outcomes (kaching! clunk!) for everyone.