Thursday, November 09, 2006

PV's chronicle of worn-out metaphors: Don Banks

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell's first rule of good English usage is “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” We now seek out writers who overuse such uncreative language.

It's time to dust off this old chesnut, er, let's just bring back the chronicle of worn-out cliches.

This time we'll look at Don Banks' latest column. He's using an awards/trophies motif throughout, so I won't count those types of metaphors; that's a deliberate use throughout an entire column, not necessarily a sign of poor or lazy writing.

To get a sense of the lack of creativity of these cliches, I will google search the phrase to see how many hits the phrase gets. That number is in parentheses after each quote. Using such rehashed phrases is a sign of writing without thinking. Some of these phrases get less hits than others because there are variations in tense or form, and are actually just as lousy and over-used as phrases that catch six-figure and seven-figure hits. When a name or other specific word is used, I adjust it for the search (for example, "give Manning his due" is searched as "give" "his due"--I'll put an asterisk every time I vary the phrase a bit). I did not search individual words used as metaphors because they are, after all, individual words. Some phrases are tired, worn phrases that I didn't even bother with ("counts for something," "getting it done"): these are VERY worn out phrases, and are similarly signs of unoriginal thinking and writing, but my goodness if I counted everything like this I would just be cut-and-pasting the entire column.

It would be unfair to take any writer and just start googling sentences; the English language features a lot of common phrases that serve a concise utilitarian purpose. I'm only picking on metaphors, cliches, and lazy turns of phrase.

"You know the drill" (711,000)
"Make the case" (1,760,000)
"carried huge burdens" (14)
"give Manning his due" (959,000*)
"tour de force" (2,890,000)
"neck and neck" (1,330,000)
"I've never bought the notion that" (30)
"shooting holes in" (31,400)
"couldn't get enough of" (313,000)
"he swallowed his huge cut in pay" (no, I WON'T google this)
"Mission accomplished" (1,860,000)
"chalk pick" (723)
"with his butt firmly on the line" (variation)
"Talk about your" (exaggerated total because it is a common utilitarian phrase, not just a cliche, though Banks is using it as one)
"Said it then, I'll say it now" (202*)
"You blew that call" (110)
"Somebody didn't do their homework" (38,600* I took out "Somebody" in the search, but wanted to leave it in for the grammatical problem)
"and it's not even close" (23,000)
"The third time around the league has most definitely not been the charm" (variation)
"Here's a hint" (511,000)
"play amateur psychologists" (41)
"as good as it gets" (2,030,000)
"I don't think I could pick Larry Coyer out of a police lineup" (673*)
"Wake me up when" (1,960,000)
"setting the world on fire" (42,900)
"south of .500." (couldn't accurately search)

"Best NFC coach -- Sean Payton, Saints: Can we just go ahead and make this unanimous? New Orleans (6-2) already owns twice as many wins as it had in the lost season of 2005, and Payton has his first-place Saints a game up in the NFL's toughest division. There are feel-good stories every year, and worst-to-first turnarounds have become commonplace. But the Saints, with their tale of Katrina-inspired woe, are something special."

This I just wanted to comment on. Payton should not be given so much credit for turning around the Saints, even if you discount the 2005 effects of the hurricane. Last year, Jim Haslett would watch Aaron Brooks fake a handoff to Aaron Stecker or Antowain Smith and then look to throw to Joe Horn or Donte Stallworth; this year, Sean Payton watches Drew Brees fake a handoff to Deuce McAllister, then look to throw to Reggie Bush, Joe Horn, or Marques Colston. There's a HUGE upgrade in skill position players over last season.

Bottom line, er, at the end of the day, er, my conclusion: Banks is another hack writer with little originality or insight, and it is covered by the use of worn-out phrases.

Let me tell you why this makes me sad. I don't think it's my childish innocence that remembers SI having the very best writers not too long ago. Even as a kid I could tell by the writing and the literary allusions that their writers were well-read, had probably been English majors, and had creativity to their prose. Did the internet crush good writing? Or is something else wrong? They still have Dr. Z, though, a truly original writer. I loved this passage from today's Dr. Z column:

"And if the Redhead were here now she would say, "Right, I call that an excuse for laziness ... to save yourself the trouble of organizing it." Not many people can argue with someone who doesn't even know she's in an argument. And besides that, she's right, or at least my alter-ego in her form is right."

This is the sort of thing that delights me. Dr. Z still has a self-awareness and an originality that makes him the king of sportswriters. He also has a devotion to actual study and research of the game; no conventional wisdom from Dr. Z. He's a welcome contrast to the likes of Banks.


  1. I never read Orwell's Politics and the English you recommend it?

  2. It's dry--it's the sort of thing English teachers think is important. But it's also a brief essay, so if you're bored, you're still only out a half hour.

  3. that is rather interesting and intriguing and I have not done that you did with google, but it seems pretty fascinating to do it and I will do it actually