Tag Archives: idiom

at the end of the day

At the end of the day, in the final analysis, when all is said and done, the bottom line is…

What?

It’s not as though discourse markers are some weird excrescence in English. We may not quite joint our sentences with them as much as Italian does with its dunque, comunque, and quindi (Italian, contrary to some stereotypes, is a language with discursive habits that are optimally suited to intellectual discourse – much more engagingly so than German, in my experience), but we still have lots of but, then, so, as a result, which means, and on up the formality scale to therefore and hence and in sum… and beyond into Latin.

And it’s not as though hackneyed metaphors are foreign to the language either. An enormous amount of our daily-use vocabulary traces back to physical references used for abstract concepts. Hackneyed originally referred to a horse worn out from being rented out all day, for instance – rental horses were hackneys, named after a town in England. Trace was first a literal reference to a path. Then there’s marker, scale, stereotype (a printing reference), joint, and all the terms we borrowed as abstract from Greek and Latin, where they began as literal references (metaphor meaning something carried beneath, for instance).

But hackneyed phrases aren’t just metaphorical discourse markers. They’re long metaphorical discourse markers, and they still flaunt their literal reference. We’ve generally forgotten the literal sense of hackneyed and stereotype, but we can’t miss the literal reference of a longer phrase made of common words. It’s in your face (so to speak). So people tire of them.

People have been tiring of them for a long time. George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (a hypocritical, xenophobic, classist clarion call for cranks, but not without its points) inveighs against this kind of bombast; two examples of “flyblown metaphors” he cites are “explore every avenue” and “leave no stone unturned.” Both of them are indeed flyblown, as it were. So is flyblown, but it’s a single word and so slips in like a quiet party crasher in a decent suit. (Bombast has lost its original reference entirely, but that’s not Orwell’s word here, it’s mine.)

Orwell didn’t mention “at the end of the day,” and it’s likely he didn’t have it in mind. Although the phrase in its literal use has been around for a long time, its summative use wasn’t especially common by his time. Before that, it slid in (hmm) very gradually, sometimes still having literal reference but also perhaps a more metaphorical sense – here’s a quote from William Cobbett, writing in 1806 but paraphrasing a speech from 1773: “that common fame, it was true, might set the enquiry on foot, but could never have sufficient ground for accusation; that is might be a very good breakfast, but at the end of the day would prove to be a very bad supper.” Other written texts using the phrase refer to the parable of the labourers, in Matthew 20, where Jesus talks of day labourers being hired at different times of the day but all getting the same pay at the end of the day. This no doubt had some influence on its occasional use in a metaphorical or at least partly metaphorical sense.

But the tired, sun-bleached (hmm) use that irritates some people so much first started spreading in the 1970s, it seems, and really took off (hmm) in the 1980s. Somehow some people – possibly more at first in England, and certainly among the moneyed business and law set – came to have the phrase stuck in their heads in such a way that it offered itself up when they reached for something equivalent to “when all is said and done.”

It may not be a coincidence that Les Miserables was a West End (and, after that, Broadway) hit starting in 1985, given that it included this song:

It didn’t invent the phrase. It didn’t even invent the figurative use of the phrase; it wouldn’t have been very effective if the phrase hadn’t already been established – it would have been just confusing. (The French original, by the way, was “Quand un jour est passé” – same rhythm, similar sense, but literally ‘when a day is done’.) But it may well have served as a vector for it, amplifying its popularity.

That’s not the song that comes to my mind first when I hear “at the end of the day,” though. I first hear this one, by the Canadian group Great Big Sea:

It’s not an originator and it’s not as widely influential. But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s all your state of mind. What’s just vivid enough to stick? And if metaphors aren’t vivid and sticky, well, then vivid and sticky might as well not be metaphors.

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