Issue # 145 – Like the plague

Like the plague…

By Geoffrey Mather

As any writer knows, falling foul of a cliché is easy as pie. Annoying, too, which means that you tend to flip your lid, let the fur fly for Pete’s sake, go through the roof, get your knickers in a twist, climb walls while your blood boils.

Publications live with clichés. Can they live without them? As one cliché dies, another is invented. Everyone recognises clichés, yet still, they slide through the close mesh of newspaper and magazine control, a mutant disease with no apparent cure. There is a perverse logic in play here. Sub-editors fancy puns or near puns, and these are blood relatives of clichés. One breeds the other until they march as one.

Two recent, and typical, examples of catch-phrasing, or punning – ‘Shaken Federer vows to bounce back.’ And after a furrow was ploughed in protest at Israeli occupation: ‘Palestinian PM ploughs ahead with the future state.’ Then, ‘To avoid being lost in the cloud, organisations need to indulge in some blue-sky thinking about their future ICT needs.’

When an entire football team went down with ‘flu, somebody involved in the production was heard saying, ‘Yea, fair enough, but what’s the angle?’ Facts are all very well but those who write news schedules feel the need for a cliché of sorts, to bind fact and presentation together. It is like a doctor yearning for ‘flu.

We have had dream homes (anything with more than three bedrooms), stockbroker belts (anything over four bedrooms), police with tracker dogs exercising their ‘long arm of the law’, detectives ‘proceeding as a result of information received’, Grannie Courage (who always fights off bag-snatchers), tycoons galore, and explosions in the home (for years after the war, ‘just like the Blitz’).

People in an earlier cliché tide did not die. They ‘bought it.’ They passed over, or away, or on, at which point they were laid to rest. We shall ‘never see their like again.’ The word ‘cancer’ was never spoken, only whispered. John Wayne called it the Big C.

Citizens had a gay time without being gays. If gays had a gay time they went to court. Police had moved on from being Peelers to being coppers, plods, Old Bill, and woodentops, and were yet to reach the inverted status of Filth.

People did not over-eat: they had ‘an elegant sufficiency’, and some of them munched. The word munch is an abomination, defined as ‘to chew steadily or vigorously, often audibly.’ It is an accident between crunch and lunch and my vision of a typical muncher is of a cow. The rallying cry of the twee restaurant might well have become ‘Munch lunch – five quid.’ There is less munching and more eating now and the world is better for it:  It would be a mercy if the word, which is a cliché in its own right, were struck from the language.

People heading big businesses –  ‘tycoons’ – tended to be linked with their products in headlines, as in Mr Bubbles (Cussons soaps in my case), or Mr Fireworks (used as a 60pt headline after a photographer wrote the words on the back of his picture as a joke).

Britain recruited foreigners after the war because three-shift working required their labour. A page-one headline read, ‘Welcome, Mr Sunshine.’ That trend disappeared, thank heaven, otherwise, we would have proceeded to Mr Raindrops, for prominent Mancunians.

We are now in the era of giants {gentle), angels (little), and heroes (modest), and the one thing binding this unlikely trio is that qualifiers have suffered some misfortune, usually terminal.

Rapping is a thing largely confined to cultural singing of a kind baffling to anyone over 40, but not all that long ago it was a required word in football – ‘Fergie raps refs.’  ‘Refs rap back.’ Most things were ‘par for the course’ and still are.

‘Who’s rapping today?’ I used to ask our sports editor as I passed his desk in the morning.

Later, football manager after manager – and all without exception from a stockbroker belt – was to explain his purpose in virtually the same words: Eye on the ball. One game at a time. Keep focussed. All credit to the lads. On the day. At this moment in time. The defining moment. The rest is history. Level playing field. You couldn’t invent it.

The words delivered in a mumbled monotone…  Meanwhile, a few managers go ‘to hell and back’ in a difficult season.

Gobbledegook – the clichery of business – has thrived as never before. Plain English Campaign lists:  ballpark figure; be proactive, not reactive; bring it to the table; mission-critical; move the goalposts; think outside the box; blue-sky thinking; pushing the envelope; there is no ‘I’ in a team; win-win situation; client focus; deliverables; incentivise; take it to the next level.

Around 1981 I exchanged short and amiable words with Chrissie Maher, the woman behind the plain English movement. She had been demonstrating for her cause in London while Parliament was in session and a policeman intervened. ‘I never knew,’ she said, ‘what “in session” meant, but never mind. He had to read the whole document – 156 words – to tell us to go. I thought it was the best thing that ever happened.’

She said, ‘Do you mean “Leave?”…’ And he said, ‘Yes, damn you.’

If you want plain English you can’t beat a war. The 1939-45 tiff in Europe did not do a lot for real estate and landscapes but it inspired sub-editors. They honed their trade ‘as never before’ because they didn’t have much newsprint. Post-war, this ‘sharp focus’ persisted and I reckon that English newspapers were the leanest and most competent ‘to be found’ ‘anywhere in the world.’

I have seen three sub-editors apply themselves to one short so that it became a shorter short than the last short if you get my drift.

Headline:  It was 120 degrees

Text: … in Brighton yesterday.

They would have cut a full stop in half with a sharp knife if they could. With more newsprint came flabbier styles, and 80 per cent of my Sunday newspaper now goes to the bin unread because the content is not relevant to me.

In this flabbier era, we need to re-discover the unpolluted language. But of course, nobody will. Perhaps nobody can. Perhaps it is too late. We have ‘lost it.’ The cliché, the pun, and gobbledegook have triumphed.

Former Daily Express features editor and columnist Geoffrey Mather ploughs his own cliché-free furrow at


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