The A to Z of Cliches - It's a Zero-Sum Game

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

The A to Z of Cliches - It's a Zero-Sum Game


Byline: Nigel Fountain

They're the everyday phrases that we all love to hate - and all love to use. Here, author Nigel Fountain cuts to the chase and tells us what they really mean ...

All the bells and whistles Thought to be a reference to a fairground organ, which had extras such as cymbals, whistles, drums and so on. The expression seems to have been in use from the late Sixties.

Buck stops here, The We owe this cliche originally to the saloons and river boats of 19th Century America. In a poker game, when it was your turn to deal the cards, you had a buck placed in front of you. This was any small object used as a marker or counter, such as a pencil stub or a pocket knife. So when it was your turn to deal, the buck stopped with you. If you opted out of dealing, you passed the buck to the next person.

Dirty tricks What began in the Fifties as CIA slang for the agency's covert operations has become one of the most overworked phrases of all.

Fat Cats Originating in Twenties America, the term was originally applied to political backers: 'These capitalists have what the organisation needs - money to finance the campaign. Such men are known in political circles as "Fat Cats" ' (F. R. Kent, Political Behavior, 1928).

Get a life This little phrase - a kind of catchall insult or disparaging put-down - goes back to the Eighties, its first appearance in print, according to the OED, in an article in The Washington Post dated January 23, 1983: '[the movie] Valley Girl was, like, ohmigod, it was last year, fer sure! I mean, get a life!' Hardball, To play Literally, to play baseball, as distinct from softball, which uses a larger ball, pitched underarm, and so is seen as a game for children and women. The word hardball, which dates from the late 19th Century, fell increasingly out of use in during the 20th.

Joined-up thinking This began life in the mid-Nineties and is only just beginning to make its way to the United States. Its first known appearance in print was in an article in 'the Bible of British adland', Campaign magazine, in March 1989.

Learning curve We owe this term to the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus who, in 1885, found that the time required to memorise a nonsense word increased sharply as the number of syllables increased. (Ebbinghaus also studied the 'forgetting curve' although, unsurprisingly, that is a less popular concept. …

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The A to Z of Cliches - It's a Zero-Sum Game
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