Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Chronicle of Cliche: Don Banks

Once again, a cliche-addled football article is driving me to chronicle overused metaphors. But we're going to do things differently today. Earlier this summer, Doug at pro-football-reference.com suggested that rather than simply pointing out the bad writing, I present alternative good writing. It's sound advice: it's pretty easy to document overused cliches, but it could be more challenging--and constructive--to show how new, fresh metaphors add to one's writing. So that's what we're doing: I'll look at a column filled with wornout metaphors, and I'll try to write new, creative metaphors to replace them.

Before I go on in this effort, let me add one suggestion for using cliches. If you are going to use a figure of speech that you know is overused, just use the word "proverbial" before you use it. For example, instead of simply writing "Lloyd Carr is on the hot seat," as so many people are writing, write "Lloyd Carr is on the proverbial hot seat." This at least shows some self-awareness in your use of language, and calls attention to the widespread use of the phrase. It's easy: you don't have to take the effort to create a fresh metaphor, but you don't have to blithely use dead language.

Moving on, today we look at Don Banks' recent "Snap Judgments" column. I'll show the original phrase from Banks' column in italics, highlight the overused metaphor, and present an alternative metaphor.

"That's when you know the games are about to start counting, and you can feel the pressure cooker building."

Let's stay in the kitchen and alienate younger readers: "you can hear the Jiffy Pop kernels bursting, getting ready to bust open the tinfoil all over the stovetop."

"We're not ready to call and put the kibosh on the Super Bowl parade planned for downtown Boston just yet"

I'm not sure what a kibosh really is; I know that Crazy Joe Davola threatened to put the kibosh on Jerry Seinfeld. Let's try this: "We're not ready to put a red light on the Super Bowl parade in downtown Boston, but that light is yellow and the Patriots are going to have to punch the gas pedal to get through it." A little forced? Yeah. But a wonderful way to bring new life to old cliches to to expand them. My favorite such expansion of a metaphor is in Jerry Seinfeld's SeinLanguage, where he compares a relationship to the cheese on a slice of pizza that won't snap off. He then writes, "Of course you could always just eat your pizza with a knife and fork, but I think this is clearly what's known as 'pushing the cheese analogy.'"

"safety Rodney Harrison, has been humbled and placed on the shelf for four games"

"and preserved in a Mason jar, sealed up for four games until it's time to spread him on the toast."

"The temptation to cut corners in the rehabilitation process will always be there"

"The temptation to skip Hamlet and just check Sparknotes in the..."

"and Harrison knew that the train moves on without you in the NFL if"

"and Harrison knew that the NFL is like the Wizard's balloon, ready to take off without Dorothy if she's too busy saying her goodbyes, or if she sprains her ankle in those shiny ruby slippers and can't get back on the football field very quickly." Why not a cultural reference?

"If Harrison, an Ed Block winner, is willing to roll the dice on the"

If we want to stick with gambling imagery, how about "is willing to try fill an inside straight."

"Patriots defensive line without Seymour in the lineup for six games isn't dead in the water."

"isn't Louis XVI staring at the guillotine, but you can hear the revolutionaries hollering outside the royal palace." I love historical references, especially if a lot of people aren't going to get it.

"I realize the Patriots have Vinny Testaverde's cell phone on speed dial, and"

Do cell phones even have speed dial? Cell phones just have numbers programmed in--it's all speed dial, baby. Let's be timely. How about "have Vinny Tesaverde in their Five on their cell phone plan."

"I couldn't help but wonder when Del Rio wasn't shooting entirely straight with us, then or now?"

Pick a politician that has very publicly been caught in a lie. Write your own joke.

"I still can't get over how far Ron Rivera has fallen off the radar screen after coming fairly close to landing an NFL head coaching job early this year."

This bit is about Rivera being Chicago defensive coordinator, nearly getting a head coaching job, and ending up San Diego's inside linebacker coach. Let's go with "After coming fairly close to landing an NFL head coaching job, Rivera has been stripped of his rank and busted back down to private." Why not? Military imagery is everywhere in football. I don't even know if I've gotten the terminology right (see my name), but do you get the idea?

"If there's a train wreck waiting to happen early in the NFL this season"

Bill Simmons, often adept at picking up on overused cliches and replacing them, has already done our work. In his recent fantasy football article, he describes Rex Grossman as "a potential midair plane collision playing QB. (Note: I'm tired of the phrase "train wreck," we need to start mixing it up.)" I like to see his attempt to defy conventional language and try something new.

Trying to think up creative, new metaphors took more time than it takes just to write down the obvious cliche. But does it add something to the reading? Would you find a writer using these new, occasionally esoteric metaphors more interesting, entertaining, and illuminating? Or do you prefer a writer like Banks, using the tired cliches? Do some of my revisions fail? Are there any you like? Has this been worth the effort?


  1. Anonymous6:37 PM

    "I love historical references, especially if a lot of people aren't going to get it."

    I usually like this type of piece from you, but the above line made me groan.

    I understood the reference you made, but the "average" reader shouldn't have to do 8 minutes of research to understand an obscure reference. People don't read sports blogs or watch sports on TV to expand their knowledge of history, you know?

    I understand where you're coming from, there is a certain thrill that comes from presenting a litte known fact to others.. I loved Dennis Miller and his Sword of Damocles, it was a treat to tune in and see what challenge he would present every Monday night.

    Anyways, I love the blog and the unusual pieces you do, but beware alienating the average Joe with statements/references like that one.

  2. Anonymous7:28 PM

    The line "can feel the pressure cooker building" is also poor because it doesn't make sense grammatically. A pressure cooker is a tool. One does not "feel" a tool "building". He could have written instead, "the pressure within the cooker is building to an unbearable degree" or "the seal on the pressure cooker is going to blow at some point" if he was determined to employ the culinary device metaphor.

    Maybe he should have used a naval simile along the lines of "the games start counting, and teams feel the pressure like a submarine hull 10,000 feet into the abyss".

  3. This entry made me think a lot.

    To start, let me say that I love your work identifying overused cliches - even if there's nothing better to replace them, exposing them is the first step.

    However, I have problems with some of your "replacement" analogies.

    My first criticism is that, as you partially admit, some of the metaphors sound a little forced. They are reminiscent of the Simpsons "Behind the Laughter" episode, where they mock the over-dramatic narration style of VH1 Behind the Music - "the TV show started out on a wing and a prayer, but now the wing was on fire, and the prayer had been answered... by Satan."

    The second thing I thought regards the obscure historical references. Before I even came to the comments page, I was thinking "Dennis Miller." Now, a lot of people, including our friend who likes meat, love Miller's style. Personally, I find him one of the most annoying people on TV, somewhere between Brit Hume and Carrot Top. He seems to have a constant need to prove that he's smarter than you, and goes out of his way to pick out things that most people won't know. Besides the obvious haughtiness, it really impedes whatever point he's trying to get across, if any.

    I know this was simply a fun exercise, and you can't be expected to pick out natural-sounding metaphors that will fit in a Don Banks article about the NFL Preseason. What do you think - am I being too harsh, or are some of these criticisms valid?

    Let me be clear - I think you're a great writer. I just don't think that these metaphors represent that.

  4. The image of Rodney Harrison being spread on toast made me chuckle. That aside, your point is solid, even if most of the replacements seem forced. I like the historical and pop culture references best. But isn't the volume of Banks' cliches a bigger issue than their quality? Should anyone be using that many metaphors in a single article? Everything in moderation, right? That's why Dennis Miller comes off just as bad as Banks to some people.

  5. Anonymous8:32 AM

    i'd try to write clearly and cleanly without metaphor-- worn out or otherwise.


  6. Anonymous9:35 AM

    This should be the title of this entry and all future cliche posts.

    Pacifist Viking "beats a dead horse": Don Banks (or whoever is the writer).

    Or in your replacement terms: Pacifist Viking "saddles up and whips Barbaro"

  7. Valid criticisms--in an effort to find original metaphors that I haven't read before, I probably pressed too hard, getting more forced and obscure metaphors than would be advised.

    And yes, overuse is a part of this problem. One or two of my revised metaphors wouldn't be outlandish. However, Banks overuses the wornout metaphors so much, that to try replace all of them with something new comes off as pretentious and obscure.

    I would not eliminate use of metaphor entirely; metaphor can effectively illuminate a situation (think of Jesus's use of metaphor--our entire understanding of Christianity is based primarily on use of metaphor, as a way to make sense of the ineffable). I think, however, that a metaphor should be used if it does illuminate a situation, and a writer shouldn't use a metaphor just to use a metaphor (in this case, I was doing just that, because I was trying to replace wornout metaphors).

  8. Anonymous9:36 AM

    Okay that replacement was horrible, but that is just shows why I try and never use cliches myself.

  9. Anonymous10:13 AM

    i think someone like banks has such little regard for writing he just slops out his column while he's munching on his pastrami and rye. maybe he even dictates it. he probably dictates it through his half chewed sandwich. i figure most sportswriting is supposed to sound conversational. alot of writing actually--fiction too-- is so clearly going against style that it's taking on this conversational sloppiness. banks doesn't know he's using metaphors is what i'm saying.


  10. Oh, I think you're right: Banks is just using common figures of speech without thinking about it, which is also why he occasionally misuses the cliches (as I wrote a few weeks ago, with his use of "Achilles").