combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2006

Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage

Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
Jonathan Swift ["A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately entered into Holy Orders" (1721)]

The Surest Road to Tedium

Like me, you were probably admonished by your teacher that careful writing avoids clichés. Phrases like right as rain, blind as a bat, or playing with fire were old, tired and worn out. They should be avoided like the plague. You might have tried to follow her advice even though such phrases appeared bright and colorful to your young mind, wondering from time to time how a phrase became old, tired and worn out. Of course, the primary reason is that the phrases WERE bright and colorful – originally. And that was the trouble. They were so bright and colorful that they became overused. Worse, they became so familiar that people stopped paying attention to what they really meant, even though once upon a time they were hip and clever.

Clichés can describe or explain human behavior in a crisp and decisive way. This is especially true in the military where a light touch can go a long way in relieving stress and frustration. It often begins as innocent fun, later picked up by outsiders who find it meaningful. For example, the term big gun is a reference to ordnance dating from about the 1400s, being pieces that were so heavy as to require special handling. This became an easy transition to today's person who is important enough to be treated in a special way. Flash in the pan also has a firearm reference dating to around the time of the Civil War wherein gunpowder might ignite prematurely (the pan being part of the gunlock), creating sound and fury but accomplishing nothing. Today a flash in the pan refers to a person or event that has a dramatic beginning but soon fizzles out. Another unproductive circumstance derives from a misfire, called a dead pan, leaving the astonished person blank from embarrassment or chagrin. These guns also spawned the cliché, lock, stock and barrel, referring to the different kinds of firelock mechanisms, such as flintlock or matchlock, with the stock, meaning the wooden handle, and the barrel, for directing the trajectory. It refers to the entire amount, a saying that has become useful in the commercial world, as in "I bought the business, lock, stock and barrel."

These and the many other references to firearms show how important they are to the military. Other clichés deal with wartime and the various battles that ensue where success is never a certainty. In the British battle of Albuera against Napoleon's French in 1811, the British were victorious despite horrible casualties, due largely to the inspiration of their Colonel Inglis who told his men to "die hard, my lads, die hard." Certainly the men's success was due largely to their determination and courage. And so another cliché was incorporated into everyday language where we refer to someone who is both fierce and resilient as being a diehard.

During the Civil War when there was neither anesthetic nor well equipped field hospitals, a man might face amputation with only the help of a quick swallow of whiskey and a bullet placed between his teeth to mute his cries of pain before he mercifully passed-out. Today one might figuratively bite the bullet as well when facing an unpleasant though necessary task, muffling cries of distress, as another cliché that has drifted into common use.

Another term, quarter, comes from long ago times before street signs, when land and location was divided into areas within the city or points on a compass. They soon evolved into references to a person's living accommodations. Hence, when an army faced certain defeat, the soldiers might hear the victor declare that he'd give no quarter(s), namely refuse to provide the prisoners a place to stay, which would essentially mean to take no prisoners. Today we have adopted this cliché to signal an aggressive stance.

Not surprisingly, there are many clichés taken from nautical terminology, since sailors had to manage via their muscles and wits long before machines or instruments were invented, with ropes and sails providing the power when there was enough wind to put them to use. With weeks and months at sea to wile away the time, what is more stereotypical than a drunken sailor, hence the phrase three sheets to the wind, his movements resembling a flapping sail. But actually, the word sheet refers to the rope that trimmed the sail, keeping it under control. Sometimes these ropes needed to be fully extended to their bitts, a point where they were attached to the posts on the deck. There they played out to the bitter end, which had nothing to do with sustaining a terrible experience as we see it today, but instead refers to a complete extension. Other times, such as in battle or during the sudden upsurge of a favorable wind, the ropes might be hacked in two as the sailors cut and run, a hurried decision that had to be acted upon without delay.

Once on the open sea, the sailors would sail either by, that is within six compass points of the wind, or large, perpendicular to the wind. Different sails favor different winds, so being able to sail by and large meant to sail well in either direction, which was a definite advantage. So today, something being by and large, or of a general size and quantity, would encompass the non-specific, making it more acceptable or even a plus. Yet nature does not always cooperate. Ever at the mercy of the winds, the sailing ship finding itself in an area of the ocean near the equator between the northeast and southeast trade winds could wallow there for long periods of calm. These doldrums, coming from the Old English prefix dheu-, meaning dull or stupefied, is a term that adapted easily into everyday speech, signifying the loss of energy, being depressed or feeling lazy.

Many in the military have joined-up hoping to have an opportunity to travel, and many common terms are picked up from foreign lands. Western novels and movies have portrayed the American Indian scalping an opponent as a sign of success in battle. But many cultures of warriors and hunters followed a similar capping custom, that of adding a feather to headgear signaling a kill, hence the term, a feather in your cap, that recognizes such an achievement. The orient provided another series of clichés. The word kowtow, refers to obsequious deference, which has the same meaning in China as genuflect does here, namely a salutation in which one bows deeply with forehead touching the ground, an expression of respect and obedience. Our less class-conscious society scorns the practice, hence uses the term to describe inappropriate humility. The same is true for the word honcho, meaning boss, which is derived from the World War II Japanese squad leader. Americans might obey the head honcho in one's employment, but will never kowtow to anyone.

Young people are also noted for embracing slang with teenagers especially quick to overuse colorful language. Who can forget the sixth-grade embarrassment when being accused of having cooties, a Malayan term for the kutu insect which is the biting or sucking louse. The word was also taken up by young soldiers suffering the louse-ridden trenches of World War I or the bug-infested jungles during subsequent wars.

Then there is the student prank called a Chinese fire drill, in which a car full of young people stops at a traffic light, where all the occupants leap out, run around the car, and return to their seats when the light turns green. This escapade actually had its origin on a British ship served by a Chinese crew after World War I. On this occasion, the British officers were told to conduct a fire drill, having crew members draw water from the starboard side, run to the engine room to douse the supposed fire, while at the same time a second crew pumped out the spent water in the engine room to throw it over the port side. Unfortunately the exercise descended into chaos with crewmembers running around in circles. The phrase was further corrupted into other Chinese expressions, such as Chinese puzzle, referring to anything confusing or without purpose.

But wars do end, and training voyages return the military to shore. There, the sailors can bring their ship to port, docking them hard and fast, meaning to make them immovable, as in the hard and fast rules and customs of today. Returning to camp, the sailor or doughboy – a reference to the round buttons worn on Civil War uniforms – might find a few relaxing moments playing poker, adapting a practice from the American West of passing a piece of buckshot from player to player, signifying whose responsibility it was to deal, each person knowing that it was his turn when the buck stops here. Of course, the G.I. would have to mind his p's and q's, meaning his tally of pints and quarts, and be careful not to overindulge and behave badly, bringing down the wrath of a superior officer.

And while cheating is always a possibility when playing cards, punishment depends upon being caught red handed, a reference to being found with blood on one's hands, a sure sign of having committed murder in primitive societies, a time predating guns when there was direct contact with clubs or daggers. Still, if caught, the perpetrator might have to pay through the nose, a reference to a ninth century punishment inflicted on the Irish by the Danes for failure to pay their taxes by slitting the wrongdoer's nose.

All of these expressions are cliché, that is tired and worn out. But their meanings have changed, or is now stated in such an offhand way, that their cleverness is gone. But like slang or jargon, delightful expressions are in abundant supply, for they echo the human condition in all of its foibles and quirks. So your teacher was right. Don't use someone else's cliché. Use your own powers of observation and create your own.

contributed by Beth Staas

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones