Category Archives: fractured cliché

A summer gift for all those who correct English papers…

I just revisited a site recommended by a friend awhile ago. The first time I read this post I was reduced to tears. This time I was successfully brought to that state of euphoria that follows true hysteria. So today, a reblog of a piece by Debby Thompson published on the blog “Timothy McSweeney’s.” Enjoy!


“They are long last friends.”

Dylan Thomas enjoyed revisiting clichéed expressions, refreshing them to offer his reader new insights, experiences, lines of thought. Phrases such as “a dog among the fairies, The atlas-eater with a jaw for news, Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow’s scream” (“Altarwise by Owl light”) and “Dead men naked they shall be one  With the man in the wind and the west moon” (“And Death Shall Have No Dominion”) wake us up with a tug on the bell of familiarity. 

Sometimes a student error has the same effect. This is one such error.

The reader of student papers (as distinct from the reader of a Dylan Thomas poem) must of course first ask: “Is this just a typo?” We can be almost certain here that my writer was going for “long-lost friends,” and possibly all she did was hit “a” instead of “o” and omit the hyphen, a little mark students are generally not comfortable with anyway. The reader silently corrects and moves on. No problem. We knew what she meant.

Just as likely, though, is that my student has not heard the expression “long-lost friend” very often; she is, after all, only 18 or 19. How long can friends be lost for if one’s entire life is two decades or less? And if she hasn’t heard the expression very often, she may not have heard it correctly. I’ve looked at a lot of other errors that seem to have resulted from reaching into one’s own lexicon to interpret an unfamiliar term, and this may be one of those errors. She may have misunderstood what she heard.

If so, then what intention did she add to the phrase? We get to play with punctuation here, all the “little marks” that group words into concepts.

Did she mean “long, last friends”? That is, was she thinking of enduring relationships with people, possibly tall people, who were likely to be among the mourners at her gravesite? For some reason this strikes me as a kind of Dylan-Thomas-y thing to write.

Or are we seeing “long-last friends”—those sturdy ones who can be relied on through thick and thin, kind of like Levi’s jeans or Wearever cookware or Firestone tires—?

I like the latter. Rather than the poignancy of friends separated by space and time, meeting again in a joyous embrace, two bereft halves coalescing finally into a stable and satisfying whole, this phrase offers us the practical, workaday comfort of friends who are, as so many of my students like to say, “THERE for each other.”

I therefore offer you the companion phrase as something you might want to add to your lexicon. “At my high school reunion I enjoyed the thrill of seeing again some long-lost friends” can be joined by “When I got home I told Jane, my long-last friend, all about it.”

Remember to keep that hyphen in there, though, or you’ll have to be writing from a sickbed or coffin.

Medieval statues of Mourners—or Long, Last Friends. No reunions here. This image from an article on the exhibit “Mourners” at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Dijon.

“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words…”

It’s phrases-in-the-blender day, folks. “Off the bat” becomes “from the bat” for some reason. An image from cricket or baseball, “right off the bat” means “immediately, without delay,” and comes as a metaphor from such observations as “right off the bat the ball was headed out of the park.” My student was writing about one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Now, Shakespeare referred to just about every feature of life, large and small, grand and ordinary, formal and casual, clean and unclean, in his plays, and he wasn’t averse to experimentation with imagery in his sonnets (or to mocking other poets’ dependence on formulaic image traditions such as coral lips and sun-like eyes). I don’t recall any bat-and-ball metaphors, though; and when I think about Shakespeare as a writer I generally don’t do so in sports imagery. My student evidently does, although she doesn’t get the phrasing exactly right. Well, be that as it may: right off the bat, Shakespeare is getting busy with that poem. He doesn’t waste any time.

But the formulaic phrase that follows Shakespeare-as-Babe Ruth is from another sphere of life entirely: “Shakespeare is using his words.” I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard this phrase except in connection with admonitions to temperamental children: “Henry, stop hitting Kaitlin with that bat; use your words!” So now I recast Shakespeare the Slugger as Shakespeare the Well-behaved Child.

Why is Shakespeare using his words? To share, of course. Here’s the whole statement:

“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words to share how much love he has for the person he is talking about.”

The “share” keeps us in that mommy (or support-group?) vernacular. Probably after “using his words” the “share” just insisted on following. He’s going to share how much love he has. Now, this does NOT mean that he’s going to share his actual love here, no, not with the reader; “share” doesn’t mean “give part of , divide and distribute, experience or enjoy with others”; in this usage it means, as all us modern speakers know, “tell, express, confide.” For some reason we don’t say “tell,” “express,” or “confide” anymore, I guess: “share” is so much warmer and less precise.

We know Shakespeare isn’t going to share any love with us because the writer is clear that the love is for the person he is talking about, not for the reader. My relief at seeing the word “talking” is huge because it’s a word I pretty much know, used in a way it’s traditionally used. Or not, of course: Shakespeare is writing, not talking. But in this instance, close enough.

He’s not going to actually express his love, evidently; he’s going to “share how much love he has.” An overabundance of synapses that may have come with age takes me all over the literary landscape with this one, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) to that pop song Petula Clark sang:

My love is warmer than the warmest sunshine
Softer than a sigh
My love is deeper than the deepest ocean
Wider than the sky….

Neither of these associations takes me deeper into Shakespeare, though; and his sonnet is like neither of them.

My apologies if the rest of your day is going to be played out against the background of that perky Petula number… Do take comfort in the fact that mine will be too.

I am relieved at the realization that Shakespeare is going to talk about his love for the person he’s talking about, at least. A sonnet is too brief a poem to clutter up with expressing love for someone other than the person he’s talking about, although I suppose he could “share” that he doesn’t love the person he’s talking about as much as he loves someone else. He wrote a sonnet sequence, after all, so the someone else could be talked about further in the other sonnets. In fact three characters do inhabit the sequence Shakespeare wrote: the young man, the “dark lady,” and the speaker. Sorting them out has kept graduate students and other scholars busy for about four hundred years. But my student isn’t concerned with this at all; she’s just commenting on a single sonnet she read.

A sonnet is also too brief to waste time at the beginning; it really does have to start right off (okay, from) the bat. A Journal entry is also a brief form, as I have assigned it. My student does not start right off the bat, though: she noodles around with bats and shares and other vagueness and wordiness rather than coming out and saying something.

The thing that makes me feel like an ogre is that she really, really likes this sonnet, as the rest of her Journal comment made clear. She likes Shakespeare. And I am beyond delighted that she does—I do, too. Because I don’t want to dampen or trivialize her appreciation, my comment on her Journal entry (which isn’t, after all, a “writing” assignment) won’t even mention her diction level, although I will underline the formulaic phrases and hope she stops in during office hours to find out why. (She didn’t.) But how someone could read Shakespeare’s specific, witty, allusive, cadenced writing and then respond with this sentence is beyond me. I imagine it’s that people who aren’t habitual or observant (or, perhaps, trained) readers don’t make these linguistic distinctions, don’t look for precision of meaning in trendy or commercial speech, don’t hear the competing voices and attitudes in their own verbal Smoothies. Hence the frequency of references to “Grendel’s mom” and “Hamlet’s dad” in student papers. I suppose.

Perhaps I should just give in. A living language is a language that changes. Perhaps there were people in Shakespeare’s audience who shook their lordly heads at his use of street slang and his coinages: “What is the Queen’s English coming to?”

Just the same. English is a huge and vigorous language (thanks partly to Himself). I wouldn’t send a boxer into the ring with both hands tied behind his back, or a violinist into the orchestra pit without a bow, and I hate to send students into the world with only the sketchiest notion of how to wield the mighty instrument that is available to them.


“The American Revolution made us a nation independent from England, where…”

Factually accurate, somewhat patriotic in tone but not jingoistic: what’s your problem, Teach?

Everyone who has ever studied a language is acquainted with the term, or at least with the concept, idiomatic—or, as that language-instruction book Mark Twain rejoiced in would put it, “English as she is spoke.” A language as it is spoken by its own people will always contain some phrases or grammatical quirks that cannot be directly translated, or that defy parsing. Instances of this are generally referred to as idioms, and the language as used by native speakers is referred to as idiomatic language. You usually can’t learn it from a textbook.

Partly because the English language developed in such a wandering way, and partly because idiomatic language can embody cultural as well as linguistic history, English is particularly challenging to use idiomatically. And my student here went forward within his sentence with an idiomatic expression he was definitely not fully in control of:

“The American Revolution made us a nation independent from England, where every man is entitled to the sweat of his own brow.”

Now, “the sweat of one’s brow” is figurative language, or perhaps in the case of a commonly-used figure we may say an idiom, for hard work, especially physical toil. The farmer, halfway through plowing his rocky New England acre, pauses to mop his forehead. If the only way he can make a living, or enjoy the fruits of his labor, is by his own physical toil, we say he lives by the sweat of his brow. (I suppose if he’s enjoying fruits, my picture of him would work better if I made him pause to mop his brow on the ladder of his twentieth apple tree during harvest season; but “fruits” itself is figurative language for “results” or “products.” This paragraph is beginning to take me far afield (so to speak)! To return:

I knew what my student meant—The Revolution established the United States, where no landlord took the profits of the peasant’s toil. See, for instance, the arrangement that was already in the process of being put into place so effectively in Ireland, the landlord-tenant system that would exacerbate the “potato famine” there in the nineteenth century, like the feudal system that had maintained such sharp social and economic divisions in much of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The worker toiled and sweated; the landlord (or the lord) took the profits and lived large.

So throwing off the yoke of England meant throwing off all vestiges of the feudal system.

What my student meant to say was that every man was entitled to the fruits of his own labor. Every man was entitled to benefit from the sweat of his brow. And he almost did say that.

The problem, of course, is that word “own.” When “own” joins the sentence and insists on modifying “brow,” a secondary idea creeps in with it. No longer is the student distinguishing who benefits from the sweat of a man’s brow, distinguishing between legitimate beneficiary and the implied illegitimate beneficiary, the “lord” of the English system; now he is identifying whose sweat constitutes the benefit.

So here’s the picture I get from this disfigurative language: Said farmer pauses in his plowing to mop his brow. In dashes a representative of the King of England, who snatches the handkerchief: “This sweat belongs to the King! Carry on!” If he’s a generous representative, he may have brought a soggy piece of cloth with him: “Here! This is John Doe’s handkerchief. This sweat’s for you!” And the farmer, saved by the Revolution, staunchly replies, “No! I am an American! That is MY sweat, from MY brow, and I’m entitled to it!” Fifty Minutemen emerge from behind the bushes, muskets at the ready, to support him, and the King’s representative skulks off (perhaps resigned to giving the King the sweat of John Doe’s brow instead). Who gets the actual fruits of his toil seems too unimportant to mention.

What will the farmer do with that hard-won sweat of his? I hate to think he will save it up to leave to his descendants…

“New York real estate is not a walk in the park.”

From an essay about the City.

A cliché, an error, a poem? Words fail me.

This post, then, is an invitation to my readers to let your lively minds play on this and write my blog for me today.

Thank you in advance.


“He shot his son out of frustration…”

This is the killer father again. I don’t know if the topic spawned so many strange sentences because my students just weren’t ready to write clearly or because they were uncomfortable writing about a young man about their own age who was shot dead for smoking a little dope.

At any rate, the student-author of today’s sentence has a credible idea about the father’s motive: frustration. But let’s go on:

“He shot his son out of frustration with his drug problem and inability to get back on his own feet.”

The part of the sentence I love is the melded clichés: “stand on his own two feet” and “get back on his feet.” Neither expression seems particularly sensible or necessary when you take a close look, but a cliché properly uttered is comfortable. The loss of “two”—or the addition of “own”—creates a strange phrase, a discomfort; and that little bump allows just enough time for the reader to think about the words, and therefore to entertain the possibility that one might get back on someone else’s feet.

Dylan Thomas had a good time with clichés, or perhaps we might call them common figures of speech, transposing elements  to give the reader pause and create fresh ideas:

                         …a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream…

(Thus the reporter with a nose for news becomes a dog with a much-more-threatening jaw for news in “Altar-wise by Owl-Light.”)

Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon…

(Here the cosmos is animated and made strange when the man leaves the moon and supplants the “west” in the wind in “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”)

Poets can get away with this kind of serious playfulness because they are armed with intent. The reader assumes the intent and takes the time to contemplate the phrasing and its role in the meaning-making of the poem.

Students have to be more careful with similar kinds of wordplay because they cannot predict whether the reader will perceive intent or presume incompetence.

And in the case of my student’s phrase, intent is most likely not present. The rest of the essay showed no such spriteliness, and the sentence in question shows no such grace; furthermore, the melded image adds not insight but only confusion—which, I’m afraid, is probably an accurate reflection of the student’s own measure of control of the sentence.

I do find quite poignant the idea that had the young man managed to stand on his own feet instead of, perhaps, his father’s—or the guy’s who scored him the grass—he might have been less frustrating to his father: he might have been permitted to live.

A lesson to take to heart, I guess: No matter how many feet you have, stand on your own.



“It left my blood boiled in cold water.”

Another student trying to express extreme emotion.

It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve been reading and listening today as people try to put their reactions to the latest senseless slaughter into words; I’ve been trying to express my own reactions too. Our vocabulary of horror and outrage is too small, and our culture has exploited it too often to hype fairly trivial things; language is less adequate than ever. (When we hear this kind of exchange every day—”Is there any ketchup?” “Yeah, here.” “Awesome”—how to describe the Grand Canyon, a major tornado, or God? When passing a healthcare bill is equated with the Holocaust, how can we think about the real Holocaust? When someone beholds a redecorated rec room and says “Oh My GOD!” how will she react to something worthy of such a powerful invocation?)

I don’t remember what event or literary situation or vision occasioned this student’s effort at strong language, but for a reader like me he achieved exactly the opposite of what he was trying for: he got helpless laughter.

Of course I knew what he meant. He was reaching into his brain for a figure of speech and accidentally grabbed parts of two, rather than one intact one. “It made my blood boil”—I was filled with rage.  “It made my blood run cold”—I was filled with a chilling horror.  He jams those two opposite figures of speech into one impossibility: a boiling coldness. The discordia concors, or paradox, so popular with Renaissance poets (“That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?” asks Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that the lover simultaneously freezes and burns with passion is seemingly invoked here. “I freeze, I burn,” indeed.

But that isn’t actually what he’s saying. He’s saying that his blood was boiled in cold water. Sort of the opposite of the frozen dinners that come in pouches, ready for immersion in boiling water to become a delectable treat: here perhaps the blood is in a bag and, by some miracle, immersed in cold water in order to boil. Maybe the water has some dry ice in it and will bubble and steam?

No, this would not have worked in my physics lab when I was a student, and it really doesn’t work on my student’s paper now.

I can certainly sympathize with his effort to express, his inability to express, an emotion—rage, most likely, not love!—that has filled him and shaken him. I celebrate his ability to feel emotion so strongly.

And I also sympathize that his teacher was ultimately unable to approve the wording as well as the emotion. Still, there it is.

“Elizabeth I gave up her entire life for her people…”

…and for this student, who has a genuinely deep appreciation for and pretty good knowledge of this great queen.

But appreciation and admiration can lead a sentence into deep waters. The portion above is already somewhat hyperbolic; here comes the rest:

“Elizabeth I gave up her entire life for her people but instead of as a mortar, she took it like a man and suffered every day.”

If he were not a student at a Catholic university I might be more tolerant of “mortar”; but I thought the martyrs were pretty much the lifeblood of the Church, literally and metaphorically. I could give him a huge benefit of the doubt and speculate that he knows “martyr” but thinks that applies only to someone who dies for religion, and since that isn’t what he’s saying about Elizabeth he chooses a different word. But I can’t hold onto that speculation for more than an instant before it crumbles into dust.

I do hope he wasn’t getting all Freudian and viewing a “mortar” in contrast to taking “it” “like a man.” He doesn’t seem to be that kind of student. He is hoping, though, to be an English major, in which case he’s going to have to learn to recognize those iconic shapes. Of course if she “suffered every day,” perhaps she felt she was being pounded (oh, dear, by a pestle, naturally, and back comes Freud!) by life, or by the men around her, or by destiny, or by events, or by whatever. Nevertheless, she did NOT give up her life as a mortar.

What she “took” is left unclear; I suppose the “it” is life, or the men around her, or destiny, or…. Whatever it is, she took it “like a man.”

What does that mean? This sentence appeared in an essay wherein my student said again and again that Queen Elizabeth did not want to be viewed as a woman, but as a ruler; she used the term “prince” to refer to herself at least as often as she used “queen.” Well, then, taking “it” like a man would be part of that. But is “suffer[ing] every day” part of being a man, or is it the consequence of taking it?

He is leading up to presenting “On Monsieur’s Departure,” a sonnet of paradoxes written by the queen. He is going to interpret her reference to “my other self,” clearly meaning Monsieur, as a comment on her double life, the inner life of a woman and the political life of a man, her renunciation of marriage for the sake of her duties to England. It’s an interesting reading, but poetic convention and the context of the phrase really work against his idea here.

Enthusiasm. Interpretive efforts. Ambition. I applaud him for all of this, and I wish more students shared these willingnesses. I hope he will soon develop the interpretive and expressive tools necessary to support them.

Meanwhile, beware mortardom!

Elizabeth after the defeat of the Armada. Powerful, solemn. Secretly suffering?  (Wikipedia carries this image of the famous portrait)

“Everything was gun ho for America.”

According to my notes, this Horror dates back to 1978, but it seems to get more and more interesting every year.

What the context is I don’t know. It could be referring to almost any moment in U.S. history when national spirit was high.

I knew perfectly well that what my student meant was that everyone was gung-ho. This phrase, for enthusiastic and active team spirit, comes from World War II Marine slang, an adaptation of a Chinese-language phrase. To read its interesting history you can go to a number of sites; most prominent is, of course, Wikipedia.

I don’t know when I first saw “gung-ho” written, but I heard it plenty of times, in plenty of contexts, while growing up, and I never thought it was anything but “gung-ho.”

My student, though, heard it differently. Again we have a case of alien sounds interpreted through the listener’s resident lexicon: “‘Gung’? How can that be a word? Must be ‘gun.’ Of course! Now, that makes sense!”

Alas, as a society we seem to be more and more gun ho. Snipers; drive-by shooters; Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pres. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Texas Tower, Columbine, Virginia Tech, etc., mass attacks; domestic murders; police overreactions (Amadou Diallo); Gabrielle Giffords; Trayvon Martin. To this we answer: concealed handguns, assault weapons, gun-show purchases, armed vigilantes. Bills advocating weapons on campuses, in state houses, in bars, at public meetings.

Everything is gun ho for America. (About the word “ho” I will not comment, since I don’t want to offend the NRA….)

Funny mistake my student made, no?

This post is, among other things, in memoriam all those who have died as a consequence of being too close to someone who was gun ho.

“In Salem the witch trials consisted of crude and unusual punishment.”

Salem never fails to provide us with bizarre student commentary.

I know what he meant. The urgent examination of people suspected of witchcraft often took the form of what we would certainly call torture: chaining head-to-heels, sleep deprivation, trial-by-ordeal (the sink-or-float trial by water, for instance, where drowning would prove Satan wasn’t helping you out), pressing, nonstop interrogation. I’m not sure we would call this “crude,” but it certainly seems cruel. The Puritans would also point out, I’m confident, that “punishment” can only follow a trial; the trial itself may be hard on the accused but isn’t itself punishment. They would also argue that since God’s forgiveness was contingent on confession and contrition, forcing a confession was benevolent on the examiners’ part: execution would follow, but the soul would not be damned.

Before we discuss crude punishment, let me hasten to exculpate Autocorrect and Spellcheck. I just typed “crule and unusual punishment” into a Word document, and Bill Gates gave me “cruel” right away. I had to go down four choices to get to “crude.” Of course he might have typed “crued” (I know whenever I try to type my friend Sam’s name, my fingers make him “Same,” and maybe my student’s fingers figured a letter following “e” and ending a word had to be “d”), in which case Bill would have supplied “crude.” Well, I’m going to assume that the intended word was “crude.” My young man may believe that the Constitution, written long after  the witch-trial craze had passed, protects us against “crude and unusual punishment.”

Of what would crude punishment consist? I suppose no methods we would consider sophisticated would be eligible; but a lot of the punishment (and torture) methods that strike us as weird or horrid or medieval or barbaric are perfectly sophisticated in their way. The Iron Maiden? The rack? The wheel? These were finely structured mechanisms that could be applied with exquisite precision.

Does “crude” mean “obscene,” as “crude language” usually means “obscene language”? By that definition, any of the approaches mentioned so far are “crude.” But that’s not the definition we generally associate with “crude” in relation to anything other than language.

We usually say “crude” when we mean “primitive” (snobby application that, as any artist would tell you), or “rough-hewn,” or “makeshift.” Piling rocks on the chest is a pretty crude substitute for, say, the Iron Maiden.

Cruel or crude: I don’t want it, and I certainly don’t want it before I’m found guilty of anything. If a trial consists of punishment, what could come after it? If we follow the Salem pattern, first comes suspicion, then arrest, then torture, then trial, then execution. Seems to me that the whole process is punishment, especially when the accused is actually innocent of the suspicion/charge. After those successive forms of agony, enhanced by the vicious scowls and howls of former friends and neighbors, the execution must have felt more like relief than punishment.

Unfortunately, left to themselves most humans will apply crude forms of trial and punishment on the grounds of mere suspicion. It isn’t easy to hold human hounds at bay; and once we do have a legal system that is designed to do so, we must make sure we don’t trash it when the next scare comes along.