Nowhere does the saying "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" more readily apply than to the cliche'.
For centuries, people have been using and abusing cliche's, with nary a trace of boredom or fatigue -- familiarity does not always breed contempt -- and with nary a footnote given to their originators.
Perhaps this is because we have forgotten who these literary forefathers (and mothers) were.
In an attempt to remedy this situation, then, here is a compendium of the origins of some of our most noble platitudes.
So, at the risk of sounding cliche'd:
ACID TEST: In 1918, Woodrow Wilson said, "The acid test of their good-will," meaning a sternly critical exam designed to reveal the slightest flaw. The term comes from the use of nitric acid to test gold for impurities. Inferior metals will decompose -- gold won't.
BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE -- Raccoon-hunting, usually done at night, relies on dogs to force raccoons up trees and then stand there barking until hunters arrive. Often a dog will bark up the wrong tree, wasting his and the hunter's time and energy. Hence, attention ill-directed.
BEAT AROUND THE BUSH -- This term, meaning to approach something indirectly, goes back a few centuries. Hunters hired beaters to beat bushes to arouse game birds for the shooting. So, beaters stirred up the action, but hunters got to the point.
THE BIGGER THEY ARE, THE HARDER THEY FALL: This one comes from prize-fighting. In 1902, "Ruby Roberts" Fitzsimmons, one-time heavyweight champion of the world, said this at a fight with James Jeffries, a much bigger man. By the way, cliche's aren't always true. Jeffries won.
CALL HIM EVERY NAME IN THE BOOK: The most we can tell you about this one is that the book isn't the phone book or the Bible -- it's the dictionary.
CAUGHT RED-HANDED: This is an 1800's reference to a murderer who is caught so soon after committing the crime that his hands are still smeared with blood.
CLOUD NINE: It means to be euphoric, and it is actual U.S. Weather Bureau terminology. Clouds are divided into classes, each of which is also divided into nine types. Cloud nine is the cumulo-nimbus cloud that builds up on hot summer afternoons, and may reach heights of 30,000 to 40,000 feet. So, if one is really high, one is said to be on cloud nine.
DON'T LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH: One of the oldest proverbs, this goes back to 420 A.D. Traditionally, the age of a horse could be determined by examining the condition of his teeth. It was considered poor manners to do this, however, with a horse that was given to you. By extension, don't inquire too closely into the value of a gift.
LIVING HIGH ON THE HOG: It means living prosperously and it is quite an accurate description, since you have to go pretty high on the hog to get the tender -- and expensive -- cuts of loin and roast.
FIDDLING WHILE ROME BURNS: To amuse oneself with trivialities while a crisis is in progress, and the phrase is pure fiction. The fiddle wasn't even invented when Nero was emperor of Rome and alleged to have fiddled while Rome burned. He may have fiddled around with a lute, but certainly not a fiddle.
FUNNY BONE: That pain when you smack your elbow isn't actually from a bone but the ulnar nerve. However, the term is a pun on the name for the bone running from the shoulder to the elbow -- the humerus. Get it?
GETTING UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE BED: From a late 18th-century superstition that right is right and left is wrong. If you got out of bed on the left side, or with your left leg first, or made the incorrigible error of putting your left shoe on first, it was considered bad luck. And if your day was thus stricken before you even got to your morning cup of coffee, the rest of your day promised to be no better.
KICK THE BUCKET: The bucket is most likely (there is some doubt as to the exact origin of this one) the pail traditionally used by a suicide to stand on while tying a noose around his neck. Then, with one swift kick, it was curtains.
LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED: This goes back to the wars between the Persians (led by general Mardonius) and the Thebians (led by general Polycrates) in 471 B.C. Mardonius was supposed to have hidden a great treasure under his tent, but when he was defeated, Polycrates couldn't find it. When he consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who told him to return and leave no stone unturned, he found the treasure.
PAINT THE TOWN RED: This term for a wild spree probably originated on the frontier. In the 19th century, that section of town hosting brothels and saloons was, and still is, known as the red-light district. So a group of lusty cowboys out for a night on the town might very well decide to make the whole town red.
PLAY A HUNCH: To act on intuition, it goes back to a gambler's superstition that it was good luck to touch a hunchback's hump.
RAINING CATS AND DOGS: This comes from the Dark Ages when cats were thought to cause rain, and dogs wind and storms.
SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE: This saying came in the aftermath of the "Black Sox" scandal in 1919, when the Chicago White Sox were found to have sold out to gamblers. The remark was addressed to outfielder "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, by a boy, as he emerged from confessing guilt in court.
TAKE THE CAKE: A slang phrase meaning to deserve, or take, the prize, it originated with the contest that blacks in the South used to have to determine the most graceful pair of walkers. Couples would walk in a circle around a cake -- the prize -- and the winners would, of course, take the cake.
Just to show that expressions don't become cliche's only as a function of their great longevity, there are quite a few modern ones that have become "user friendly." Take, for instance, "out in the ozone," "being on the same wavelength" and "having a meltdown." The "bottom line" is that cliche's will "keep on truckin'."
Gregg Levoy is a California writer.
1987, Words by Wire