Thursday, December 17, 2015

Two cheers for stupid people: They may have given us some immortal images, rubbed smooth into cliches

It's fun to note how responsive social media is to remarks about language and usage. This morning I encountered in a couple of journalistic sources the phrase "stark contrast" within a mere hour. I then realized the phrase is frequently pressed into service in journalism — like noting ironies that aren't really ironic.

So I posted on Facebook and Twitter a comment facetiously wondering how difficult it might be for journalists to give up yoking the two words together. (There are other kinds of contrasts, of course, but journalists seem partial to the stark kind.) The response to my remarks has been lively.

That got me thinking of somewhat longer phrases that are hallowed by overuse. I was spurred by a particularly funny "Guy Noir" segment on the Dec. 5 "A Prairie Home Companion."  Garrison Keillor's world-weary detective was tutoring a fictional Wal-Mart heir on term papers for various university classes.

What fate awaited too many babies like this after the bath was over?
At Noir's urging, the same current academic jargon was repurposed from one topic to the next — such terms as 'heterogeneous narrative," "hegemony," and "historicizing the democratic imperative." Later, by a plot twist too Keillorian to detail here, the phrases show up in a speech by Donald Trump (mimicked in the expert PHC manner).

Joining the trendy academese  — and sticking out like a sore thumb (you see how easy it is when cliches are the topic) — is "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." A homely cliche, no doubt of ancient origin. It evokes our rural forebears, bathing their young-uns in washtubs full of stove-heated water back when the used bathwater would be tossed into the yard when the chore was done.

The creative genius of folk culture seems inadequate to explain how this expression got started. Since stupidity is so much in our minds nowadays, thanks to the perpetual presidential campaign, I figure "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" must have originated in that particular carelessness having come up a few times. Before a figure of speech can become figurative, it had to be literal, right? "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows," as Robert Frost said.

I can hear a cabin-bound housewife noting with asperity to her husband, son, or brother-in-law (for men are the cliche culprits in such stupidity): "You hear that wailin' comin' from over yonder in the yard, Zeke? You wouldn't have thrown the baby out with the bathwater again, would ya?"

"I don't rightly know. I suppose I coulda." The man looks around the bath area and fails to see a clean baby, or any other kind. "I guess mebbe I did."

"Well, go fetch him in here and wrap him up good. Poor fella could catch his death of cold. And try to remember not to throw the baby out with the bathwater."

We may owe a few cherished cliches to stupid people.
Seems more than one such reminder wouldn't be necessary, but the phrase hung on somehow as a warning not to discard anything valuable in any process with a byproduct you might want to get rid of. We all have some anonymous stupid person in the distant past to thank for first needing this valuable advice. Advice which, sadly, may have required more than a few repetitions — and the injury or even demise of several babies — before it passed into the common language.

Subtler cliches of the same ilk may not always have arrant stupidity behind them. "Carrying coals to Newcastle," for example, when Newcastle, England, was a coal-producing center, would not be stupid in the event of a miners' strike. But there is certainly no case when throwing the baby out with the bathwater can be considered a wise practice. Except, perhaps, where particularly annoying babies are concerned.

I'll hazard a guess that Zeke, or someone like him (I somehow see a stupid Russian, a lout out of Chekhov or Gogol), gave to posterity another bit of folk wisdom that has attained cliche status. It probably went something like this:

"Vladimir Semyonovich, give up — put away the whip, please!"

"Why? I have to get to town by sunset, and this nag just won't move."

"That's because she's dead. She doesn't have another miserable step left in her. You'll just have to walk home and explain it to your long-suffering wife. How is Sofia Maronova, by the way?"

"Well, she's kind of gloomy these days."

"Of course. She's Russian. What do you expect?"

"I came home last week and she was just sitting in a corner bawling. She had spilled some milk. I had to clean it up. It had been hours, the day was hot, and the milk was starting to stink. So I'm worried about her. Now, I suppose you're going to tell me I can't beat a dead horse."

"That's right. There's no way around it, Vladimir Semyonovich. A dead horse simply isn't going anywhere."

"Well, thank you, Vadim Morovich." The crestfallen horse-beater starts trudging off toward his home in the town of N_________, a village so poor it has had to trade the other letters in its name for bread, vodka, and other necessities. Did I mention the vodka?

 "You can't beat a dead horse," Vladimir calls back over his shoulder. "I'll have to remember that. Everyone should remember that."

"They will, Vladimir Semyonovich.  I have a feeling they certainly will."