Saturday, October 6, 2007

When You Really Need a Cliché

In all the years I've been teaching and editing, one of the most enduring pieces of advice given and taken is to avoid clichés. So, it was with some interest that I visited a Web page called Cliche Finder. I expected some sort of word search, like a spell-checker, that might identify shop-worn phrases. Not so.
Actually, that very site may have been the inspiration for a unintentionally near-perfect parody of the op-ed genre that ran in the Charlotte Sun at the opening of the state legislative session back in March. The stage is set in the headline, and I couldn't resist elaborating. First the original.


We might call it a revolution of sorts, this power struggle over the piggy bank between state and local governments in Florida. Hey, wars have been started over such matters. For centuries, countries have been divided by clashes between classes which have sprung up over taxes and the distribution of wealth.Perhaps nothing is stronger than the territorial imperative, so the infliction upon homeowners of excessive fees for insurance and absurdly high taxes has riled the citizenry. And where’s all that tax money going?

The counties have enjoyed a huge windfall with the real estate boom, but with it has come higher property taxes. This has led to more spending, which the counties say they can justify by the higher cost of doing business.

Gov. Charlie Crist wants to lower property taxes, but can’t do it without making up the lost dollars with an increased sales taxes or a state income tax. If the state added 2.5 cents to the current rate of 6 cents, as proposed, it would be the highest state sales tax in America.

Some are calling the Crist proposal a tax on the poor because those with luxurious homes get the huge tax break.

What we have going on these days in the Sunshine State is a power struggle over money and who gets to spend it. The local government or the state.

To use the old cliché, what he are talking about here is The Golden Rule. He who has the gold rules.

There is this pile of cash stacked ups somewhere and everybody want to get their mitts on it.

Both sides are firmly entrenched, as subscribers to the Sun have been reading about in recent weeks, and it doesn’t appear there will be any backing off anytime soon.

What we would hope for from our governor and state Legislature is that the prevailing campaign promises of working out compromises between parties might be honored.

More than ever, we need them to represent the best interest of the people of Florida and to conduct their business without special interest leanings. We need answers to our insurance woes. We need relief from taxes. And despite some of the strong actions and interesting proposals that have come out of Tallahassee in 2007, there are still storm clouds brewing.

We just hope the feud isn’t exacerbated by making it a party line issue that will create further division in our government. Frankly, we all hoped we were getting past this gridlock monkey business.

Say what you will about Crist and House Speaker Marc Rubio, who proposed the controversial no-property-tax bill, but they have stirred up things in the state capital, even if it is a hornet’s nest.
The near-perfect parody of the op-ed genre, "Deciding who gets the gold determines who rules" (Saturday, March 18), left me thoroughly delighted with a virtuoso performance of cliché-hitching called "Boxcars."* Unable to resist, this humble hobo hopped aboard a boxcar and made a few travel notes to share with those left behind.

Buddy's Boxcar Line pulled out of the station as his whistle blew a major, three-toned chord: "Call it a revolution ..., " and a "power struggle," over the "piggy bank" (the last being a cute high-note, signaling greater things to come) -- all sounded in one sentence: a masterful departure.

The chief engineer's second and third sentences pick up the rhythm of the rails with that old boxcar, "clashes between classes ..." (only slightly less clichéd than "class conflict" but still worth the ticket price). That boxcar is hitched to a boxcar carrying to bones of poor old Konrad Lorenz: "... perhaps nothing stronger than the territorial imperative ...." (not sex? not hunger? not Jihaad?)

"Riled the citizenry" is a boxcar anti-tax engineers have been riding since American Revolution, when the English king used stamps and tea leaves to round up another venerable boxcar, the "huge windfall." (Was ever a windfall small?)

Since the home- and land-sale sectors of the economy have just two newsworthy conditions (boom and bust), "real estate boom" is an obvious pickup for the busy boxcar driver. But our engineer didn't overlook "the cost of doing business ..." It's a phrase no op-ed column about taxes wants to leave on the sidetrack. He clearly understands it's the cost of writing "in the Sunshine State" where an "endless power struggle" goes on.

Amid all this praise, this humble hobo has a quibble: A cliché's beauty is often in direct proportion to how well it's spliced into the sentence without calling attention to itself. So when the engineer writes, "To use the old cliché ..., " it's like setting up a big blinking X at the grade crossing. The cagiest readers will detect the master's work without a directional signal. This small blunder is fully redeemed when our engineer doesn't actually use the old cliché, as announced. Instead, he corrupts it beyond recognition, ultimately producing a second-generation triteness to be tooted in the headline.

While we long to stop and savor the climatic, the boxcars aren’t ready to slow down. "The sides are firmly entrenched ..." (whenever have sides not been firmly entrenched? spoil-sports may ask) is the locomotive that pulls "backing off" and "more than ever." This last is the rare cliché of transition, which nicely hitches up "best interest of the people," "special interests" and "relief from taxes," just to count off a few of the boxcars now whizzing by.

At this point, your humble hobo is tempted to say this train is gathering steam, but the old pro beat me to it with " ...storm clouds brewing." (I always wake up and smell the coffee when I read this classic.)

And, like any excursion train whose terminus takes riders into territories beyond populated centers (the railroad less taken, one might say), our drivers offer the surprisingly original coupling of not one but two venerable images: The penultimate paragraph closes on the hope that debate moves past "gridlock monkey business." With this phrase he commands every reader to stop and ponder the unexpected possibilities of city streets clogged with simians wearing Charlie Chaplin suits.

And, finally, like any good conductor, he lets riders know the train is safely back at the depot, boxcars intact, because he sounds the familiar toot-toot-toot that has "stirred things up" around the "hornet's nest."

* (Boxcars: Prefabricated, empty phrases; clichés; writers hitch boxcars into a sentence train that rumbles along the track, almost under its own steam. My definition is loosely based on Ken McCrorie's many wonderful texts for college students about writing well.)

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