Tag Archives: clichés

the bottom line

OK, so now we know the bottom line on the end of the day. But at the end of the day, what’s the bottom line?

They seem to be roughly the same thing, right? A summative discourse marker? But one refers to the situation after everything has happened; the other refers to the situation when everything is tallied up. They tend to be used in generally interchangeable situations, but can we think of a place where we would use one and not the other, or at least would incline more to one than to the other? Or even where the tone or sense might be a little different?

They make great cakes, but at the end of the day, I’d still rather eat at home.
They make great cakes, but the bottom line is I’d still rather eat at home.

He’s capricious and demanding, but the bottom line is that he makes great cakes.
He’s capricious and demanding, but at the end of the day, he makes great cakes.

You can have all the cosmetic surgery you want, but at the end of the day you’re still older.
You can have all the cosmetic surgery you want, but the bottom line is that you’re still older.

These are pretty clothes and they’re inexpensive, but the bottom line is that they just don’t suit me.
These are pretty clothes and they’re inexpensive, but at the end of the day they just don’t suit me.

At the end of the day, while there are differences in tone and general suitability, the bottom line is that I can’t think of an example where one or the other would be too awkward to use. Unintentionally funny, perhaps:

It may have fancy expensive ingredients, but at the end of the day, it’s breakfast.
Your bass and tenor and alto parts are all singable, but the bottom line is that the soprano part is too high.

And in some cases, you really should ask: Why this clichéd metaphor and not another? (Why any clichéd metaphor is sometimes a good question too.)

What, anyway, is the bottom line? Is it the bass part in a score? The end of a novel? The weighted lower edge of a fishing net? Well, that last one is the first definition for bottom line in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it’s not the one that’s the basis for the sense ‘final analysis’ or ‘crux of the argument’ – though this cliché does seem to be a rather wide net, dragging the lexical ocean to corral coral and filter in flotsam. No, it’s the summation of an accounting: the last line of a bill or ledger, showing the balance after all has been added and subtracted. It’s what a restaurant gives you at the end of the evening.

The bottom line has been used in this figurative sense since at least the 1830s, but its use rose rapidly starting in the 1970s. At the same time, the phrases “the bottom line is” and, more narrowly, “the bottom line is that” first appeared in print. Have a look. Before then, its use really was mostly literal (and sometimes referring to geometric drawing). In the early 1970s we start seeing it in fiction and plays but also in political writing and speeches. It seems to have become popular among a certain set. By 1979 there was a book called The Bottom Line: Communicating in the Organization by T. Harrell Allen. And once the 1980s came, it was a current phrase used to convey a pragmatic, hard-edged, business-minded sensibility. Not the weariness or nostalgia of at the end of the day. Just whatever’s right on the money.

But at the end of the day, is the bottom line really the last word?


Clichés and picturesque language

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0008.

At first glance, English may seem to be going through a paradigm shift, with a  dizzying array of ways to put lipstick on the pig. This naturally provokes some push-back, even withering criticism, as we struggle to wrap our heads around it. But the upshot remains to be seen. Should we just run with it? Or should we step up to the plate and think outside the box? If you talk about the elephant in the room, will that mean you’re not a team player? Will you get thrown under a bus? And, on the other hand, at the end of the day, are we even truly at a crossroads?

More to the point, did that paragraph provoke you to hyperemesis?

We Anglophones have an apparently inexhaustible facility for creating clichés. A sharp turn of phrase or a particularly engaging image sparks interest and spreads like wildfire, and soon enough it’s tired and stale. This is not a new thing. Some hackneyed clichés of yesteryear have become so cemented that we continue to use them even though we no longer quite remember the literal reference. The result is sometimes what are called eggcorns: misconstrual of idiomatic words or phrases into things that make more sense to the modern eye and ear. This is how just deserts becomes just desserts, tide me over becomes tie me over, strait-laced and strait and narrow get straightened, sleight of hand gets slighted… Forget about trying to nip these in the bud in the nick of time; many of them are as old as the hills. You may look for the silver lining and try to make lemonade, but…

What? Oh, fine, I’ll stop. What I’ve really been doing is illustrating a central point of all of these: they’re all picturesque. They all involve metaphors. But in many cases the imagery is etiolated. The words are still there, and we could play with the images if we want, but for general use they are like posters or pin-ups that have been on the wall too long and are now faded to pale shades of cyan.

But that is how language works. Most language you use is made of metaphors and images that have lost their vividness and, in many cases, are no longer recognizable as imagery at all. Let us look at some “plain” words that could replace the clichés. Going through a paradigm shift – well, we could say changing, but that comes (much changed!) from a Latin word for bartering and exchanging, and may deriver further from an older word for bending or turning back. We could replace push-back with rejection, but reject is from Latin for “throw back.” If we prefer to understand rather than wrap our heads around, it ought not to take us too long to see the under and stand in understand. And if we go with comprehend? There’s the Latin again, meaning “grasp, seize” (remember that anything that can grab things is prehensile, from the same root). If you prefer betray to throw under a bus, you may want to know that the tray in betray conceals a Latin origin in trans plus dare, meaning “hand over.” And so it goes. Look back over this paragraph and try to find one verb I have used that isn’t a figurative use of a word with a physical reference: work, make, look, go… even prefer comes from Latin for “put in front, carry forward.”

In this way (as in a few others) English is like Chinese. I’m not talking about the Chinese use of imagery and metaphor, which is considerable; I mean the written form, the Chinese characters. People who aren’t familiar with Chinese characters may think of them as pictograms, resembling closely what they refer to. People who try to learn Chinese find very quickly that the characters generally give the reader nothing obvious to grab onto. This is because the characters are like our words and phrases that have had the imagery worn off them.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Look at the character for “look”: 看. Does that look like looking? How about after I tell you that it’s made of two parts, and the 手 was originally a hand (see the fingers? it has changed somewhat) and the 目 was originally an eye (it rotated 90˚ a long time ago; make the outside box curved and see the inside lines as making the edges of the iris)?

Now look at the character for “good”: 好. How does that look good, or like anything good? Well, the 女 part is the character for “woman,” and originally looked like a line drawing of a standing woman with her hands held in front of her. The 子 part is the character for “child,” and if you curve the top part and bend the crossbar down, you might begin to see an infant in swaddling clothes. It seems that, to the scribes who determined this character, the epitome of goodness was a mother and child.

Such is the way it goes, too, with our picturesque language. Time and tide, change and overuse, leave the imagery behind. But if you know how to look, it’s still good – and not altogether lacking in character.

Are you deranged?

As people who read Sesquiotica know, I’m not in the business of coming up with inflexible rules for people to slave under. But I am in the business of making observations and occasional suggestions. And sometimes asking questions.

Well, today I have a question for you: Are you deranged?

Actually, that would be better put as Is your prose deranged?

Here’s what I’m getting at. How do you normally express a range in English? You know, from 1 to 20 or from ultraviolet to infrared?

The way I just did, naturally: from…to.

And when people write ad or marketing or expository copy wanting to talk about all the options available in this or that place or from this or that person or business, they very often like to use this form to give a sense of a full range. In fact, two items often don’t suffice to express the ambit of offerings: you’ll get

from Iqaluit to Toronto and from Victoria to St. John’s

or you’ll get

from drama and dance to engineering and physics

and sometimes you’ll even get a string of to‘s.

But what you much too often will not get is an actual range. The from…to construction is grabbed as a convenient way to convey the idea of a a diverse offering, like a sweep of the arms. But too often it lacks clarity, it lacks sharpness, it lacks punch, because it doesn’t express a real range. It’s de-ranged.

Consider a sentence such as

From its beautiful waterfront to its exciting dining options to its lively theatre scene to its lush parks, Toronto has a lot to offer.

Diagram that out if you can. Does that really express a contrast between endpoints or extremes? It’s four different things, but it’s not like

from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, from the Arctic Circle to the great lake waters

It’s more like

from your elbow to a poodle to your nose to pineapples

As I’ve discussed elsewhere (“Sharpening and vowel shifts” and “chiaroscuro“), contrasts appeal. Make a strong statement. Give it some flavour if you can. Go for something like

From Napoleons to beef Wellington, if it has pastry, we make it.

If you don’t have a sharp contrast, don’t pretend you do. But you can probably find one if you look – rather than just being lazy and relying on a usage that seems to suggest contrast. You’ll get more contrast from

Treat yourself to our one-inch micro-whoopie pie. Or to our twenty-inch monster cake. Or maybe just a nice warm muffin.

than you will from

From cookies to cakes to muffins, we have the full complement of baked goods.

This isn’t a rule; this is advice: don’t be de-ranged. Don’t be lazy or sloppy. Don’t rely on clichéd syntax. Stop for a moment and think about the truly vivid images available. You’ll produce much better results if you do.