I generally enjoy the writing of Jonah Goldberg of National Review and the American Enterprise Institute. He usually manages to mix irreverence with clear thinking in a humorous way that incorporates lots of elements of popular culture. He is also capable, when he wants to, of writing very seriously. I’m just now finally getting around to finishing his great book, Liberal Fascism.
A few years ago, Jonah wrote a column, The Tyranny of the Clichés, in which he argued that many members of the commentariat over-use the cliché. It has, he wrote, become a substitute for argument, and those who resort to them are taking a dangerous short-cut. I’m paraphrasing here, and it’s always possible that I’ve misunderstood what he was actually saying. We shouldn’t always assume that a cliché is true.
If clichés are subject to abuse, then surely metaphors and idioms are as well.
I’ve noticed that certain idioms seem to be getting used with increasing frequency by Mr. Goldberg. This was acceptable when the recurring term was “feckless crapweasel,” a phrase that was practically synonymous with those upon whom Jonah was heaping his duly-earned scorn. But he’s sprinkling other phrases into his columns that, frankly, are distracting me from whatever point it is that he’s trying to make. If another commentating is making an argument (or an assertion without an argument) based on faulty logic, it’s “nonsense on stilts.” If people are getting excited over what Jonah considers to be a minor matter, they’re “getting their dresses over their heads” over something that’s “not worth going to the mattresses” over. On the other hand, if Jonah thinks it is important, he’ll fight “hammer and tongs.”
I don’t mind idioms or memes. I use them myself, because they often evoke a complicated idea in a few brief words. But they only work for a targeted audience which is able to recognize and follow the reference. Since I write for myself, I don’t have to worry about whether anybody else can understand what I’m saying. As long as I understand it, my target audience is satisfied. Jonah’s audience, on the other hand, is huge, and just because he might know what he’s saying doesn’t mean that his audience does. And that’s just annoying.