The idiom graveyard — from hotcakes to high horses, 13 expressions we really should retire


Joe Biden is still allowed to use all of these. (AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

It came to my attention lately when telling someone to “hold the phones” that our idioms have slipped slowly but unmistakably behind the times. What phones? This phrase dates from back when there were switchboards. It is like that moment you wake up, look at your wardrobe and realize that you are wearing a shirt you purchased in 2002. Well, out with the old, in with the new! Here are a few idioms that have seen better days and we really should think twice before using. Feel free to submit your own in the comments!

Sell Like Hotcakes: I have never in my life sold or bought a hotcake. What is a hotcake? Saying something “sells like hotcakes” is another way of saying “I have never seen this item sell, ever.” Try “sell like funnel cakes” or “sell like cupcakes, that fad that won’t die out no matter how many trend pieces we write hinting that It’s Pie’s Turn Now.”

Hold The Phones: For how timely it is, this phrase might as well be, “Get that carrier pigeon BACK HERE” or “Grab that semaphore guy’s arms and hold on for dear life.” As one of my chatters pointed out, “Don’t tweet that!” would be a good equivalent, if only it were a thought that anyone had ever had. But it, alas, isn’t. “Turn off the Internet” might be a good modern equivalent.

Nothing To Write Home About: I can’t conceive of any circumstances, in the ordinary course of modern life, where you would want to write home about something. Even soldiers use video chat. If you are writing home about something, this means that you are excited, but not excited enough about it that your family can’t wait three days to hear about it. When you do write home about something, the letter usually begins, “By the time you read this, I will already be miles over the border. I hope you can forgive me, Evelyn.” Try, “This isn’t even text-worthy.”

Don’t Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth: This is really more of a 1 percent problem. Who gets gift horses? Who, of the already small set of people in a position to be given horses as gifts, understands enough about horses to be able to tell the health of the horse from staring into its mouth? If you told me to look into a horse’s mouth, I would shrug. “Looks like a horse,” I would say. “Heh heh, healthy as a horse.” But this is a pointless speculation. No one will ever give me a horse. This is probably something Mitt Romney said a lot to seem more relatable on the campaign trail. (“If its mouth has a bad conformation, you don’t want to know too early, so your gratitude can seem genuine! Heh heh. Lemon. Horse. Not good.”)

Get Off Your High Horse: This is another of those 1 percenty expressions. But it still works — it just makes you sound like even more of a jerk. “Get off your high horse! It’s 2013! What do you think this is, Colonial Williamsburg?” works, or, for more modern flair, “Climb down from that fixed-gear bicycle.”

Going To Hell In A Handbasket: I have no problem with the concept that things are going to Hell, but a handbasket? Who has a handbasket? According to Microsoft Word’s vigilant red underliner, that isn’t even a word any more. Also, Hell strikes me as more of a bucket-type place.

Straight From The Horse’s Mouth: Again, these horse expressions! I don’t know why information you got from the mouth of a horse would be reliable. In fact, I would argue that it would be less reliable than information you got straight from a person’s mouth or straight from Wikipedia. Wikipedia is pretty good these days. If you are watching a cop procedural and there is a character getting his information from horse’s mouths, that guy usually is revealed to be the serial killer by the end of the episode. Try, “Straight from the person’s mouth” or “She tweeted as much.”

A Dime A Dozen: Things that are a dime a dozen are actually rare these days.

At The Drop Of A Hat: Making something happen at the drop of a hat is actually quite difficult. First, you must find someone who is wearing a hat. This takes some effort. The only people who still wear hats are those old men on buses who sport newsboy caps because they think it makes them look less bald. By the time you have explained what you need the hat for, they have probably pulled the cord and gotten off, giving you a strange look. In hipster circles, getting a hat to drop is not difficult, but most of these vintage expressions (well, except the ones involving horses) are easier in hipster circles. Another way of phrasing “At the drop of a hat” might as well be “After several laborious hours chasing old men on buses,” and that’s not a phrase that trips off the tongue, exactly.

Don’t Have A Cow: Okay! Done! Next!

Cry Wolf: Almost anything you could cry is more believable and threatening than crying “Wolf.” “Blitzer?” your audience asks. “Get that guy over here!” By the third repetition they stop looking for the reputable CNN anchor, but they are never scared by the idea that he is approaching. Even if you manage to convey that you are crying about an actual wolf, like the boy in the story, your audience will remain underwhelmed. “That wolf got to the eighth floor on its own?” they will say. “It’s probably cool.”

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover: “Don’t judge a book by the tiny colorful image that accompanies the eReader edition, the only edition that will be available, soon enough” (sobs noisily).

Till The Cows Come Home: So, forever, is what I hear you saying.

Also, try Forty Things to Die Before You Say. 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | March 5, 2013