Are there any phrases that are repeated so much that you’ve really come to hate them? There are certainly plenty I’m sick and tired of. Even if they often began as evocative and expressive, endless repetition by everyone from politicians to football managers has left them meaningless and annoying.
What’s worse, though, is when the repetition has actually changed the phrase’s meaning. The English language is full of expressions and idioms that come from a specific literary source – usually, though not always, either the Bible or Shakespeare. The problem is that they’ve entered the vocabulary of people who know nothing of their origin and use the phrase in the sense they think it ought to have.
Somewhere back in the Eighties, people started using the phrase sea-change. Nothing wrong with that – it’s a beautiful expression from Shakespeare – but many of them clearly had no idea what it meant. It comes from Ariel’s song in The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange…
It describes a gradual, almost imperceptible transformation, but it’s often used for any kind of change, even an instant one. What was a beautiful image has turned into just another way of saying a change.
Movers and shakers is another. It’s used to describe key politicians, powerful businesspeople, or people who are plastered all over the media. It also comes from a poem, this one by Arthur O’Shaughnessy:
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;-
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
The phrase has turned a complete 180 degrees, and is now assumed to mean the exact opposite of its original sense, which was that the people who truly shape their age are the ones ignored at the time.
And then there’s the Midas touch. We admiringly describe someone like Richard Branson as having the Midas touch and wish we had it ourselves, which misses the entire point of the story.
The Greek legend (perhaps fable or parable would describe it better) of King Midas relates how a god he’d done a favour to gives him a wish, and Midas wishes that everything he touches turns to gold. Eventually, by the time he’s starving because everything he tries to eat or drink turns to gold before he can swallow it, and he’s unable to have any human contact because anyone he touches turns instantly into a fetching golden statue, he calls the god back and begs to be released from the curse. And this, apparently, is what we all admire and want.
Phrases and allusions like this can enrich the language, but not if they’re just parroted without any thought of what they actually mean. There are plenty more than these few, but these are my particular bugbears. What are yours?