The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


March 22, 2013

Clichés represent distilled wisdom from decades of use

Point Blank

A cliché has a bad name as an overworked and therefore banal expression. Spoken or written by someone who is not thinking much about what he is saying or writing, it usually has a negative connotation.

However, for many of us who grew up with these expressions, no matter how trite they might seem “at first blush,” they can effectively sum up a point or situation, adding a seasoning of humor to our conversations, representing distilled wisdom from decades of use.  My sources include “A Hog on Ice” by Charles Earle Funk, “The Dictionary of Clichés” by James Rogers, “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,” “Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs” and “Walsh’s Handy Book of Literary curiosities.”

Here are some of the common expressions, colorful phrases that we all use, that have worked their way into everyday speech, especially in the hills of Appalachia and southern West Virginia in particular:

Ace up his sleeve — A surprise, a hidden weapon. The card sharp, who depending for his living on winning at cards, was known to slip cards up his sleeve.

All in the same boat — We’re in this together; we all share the same risks.

Apple of his eye — A cherished person or object.

At the tip of my tongue — Something I know but can’t quite recall.

Avoid like the plague — Shun rigorously; stay away from something at all costs.

Bark up the wrong tree — an expression that originated among raccoon hunters. If the dog had the wrong tree, the hunter was unlikely to get his prey.

Beat a dead horse — Do something futile; belabor an issue that is no longer of interest.

Burn the candle at both ends — Overwork oneself mentally or physically.

Close shave — A narrow escape. A man who literally shaves too closely is likely to cut or scratch his face.

Fool and his money are soon parted — a dimwitted person is easily persuaded to buy something or invest in something that proves to be worthless.

Go to town — Do something exuberantly or efficiently.

Get on the gravy train — To obtain money or services without much effort. Real gravy adds a pleasant taste to some basic dish such as meat and potatoes.

Hook or by crook — By any means, fair or foul.

Tough nut to crack — A difficult person who cannot easily be persuaded to do something.

Walk on eggs — Proceed warily and with great caution.

Worn to a frazzle — Extremely tired or nervously exhausted from hard physical effort or mental stress.

Spick and span — For the past two hundred years we have been using this to mean very trim and smart, thoroughly neat and orderly, having the appearance of newness.

Not dry behind the ears (or still wet behind the ears) — As innocent and unsophisticated as a babe. A saying that came directly from the farm.

In the bag — With success assured; all over but the shouting.

To ride the high horse; on one’s high horse — People of rank in England were mounted on “high horses” during royal pageants; they rode the so-called great horses.

Take the bull by the horns — To face an unpleasant, difficult, or dangerous situation with such courage as one can muster and with the hope that such decisive action may avert disastrous consequences.

To know beans — This phrase usually has a negative implication; one who doesn’t know beans is appallingly ignorant or is wholly unacquainted with the subject under discussion.

To get cold feet — To lose one’s nerve or change one’s mind.

To root hog or die — To get down to hard work or suffer the consequences, to shift for oneself.

To rain cats and dogs — We use this to refer to a terrific downpour, not a gentle shower.

Till the cows come home — This is a very old homely saying referring to the time that cows, with udders painfully full, come to the home gates for the morning or evening milking; or disgracefully late hours.

In hot water — Usually meant figuratively, meaning trouble, a scrape, or a difficulty.

To know the ropes — To be familiar with all the details.

To spill the beans — To upset the plans, to relate something fully or prematurely; to let the cat out of the bag; to upset the apple cart.

Left holding the bag — When one is left in an awkward predicament or blamed or punished for all the faults committed.


Top o’ the morning!   

 — Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail:


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