Thursday, May 13, 2004

Clichés and Mixed Metaphors

A cliché, according to the Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide (1999), is “a hackneyed phrase or opinion.” That won’t tell you much unless you know what “hackneyed” means. A phrase is hackneyed when it is “made commonplace or trite by overuse.” “Trite” means “hackneyed; worn out by constant repetition.” So a cliché is a phrase (or opinion) that is worn out by overuse or constant repetition. Here is today’s cliché: “hindsight is twenty-twenty.” You’ve heard it a lot, haven’t you? It’s worn out, isn’t it? The idea, I suppose, is that events that have already occurred are clear, whereas those that have not already occurred are not clear. When we look back, temporally, we see what happened. When we look forward, we don’t know what will happen. Things aren’t as stark as all this. We often have a clear idea of what will happen if we act one way rather than another, and sometimes we have no clear idea of what in fact happened. Is it clear what caused the Civil War? Is it clear who killed President John F. Kennedy? If things were always clear, we would not need historians, whose job it is to make sense of the past. If things were always clear, historians would never disagree, which of course they do. Sometimes the expression “hindsight is twenty-twenty” is meant to stifle criticism. For example, suppose a baseball manager walks the other team’s star player (think Barry Bonds) to load the bases in the ninth inning of a tie game. It’s a risky move, since a walk will end the game. Suppose the next batter walks, ending the game. If someone criticizes the manager, it might be said in response that “hindsight is twenty-twenty.” We know, now, what happened; but we didn’t know at the time what would happen. This is confused. We criticize decisions, not outcomes. The manager’s decision to walk the star player is independent of what actually happens. If the move backfires, i.e., if the pitcher walks in the winning run, it doesn’t make the decision wrong; and if it works out, i.e., if the pitcher retires the batter, it doesn’t make it right. Lazy sportswriters and fans ignore this. They shouldn’t. Hindsight may tell us what happened, but it doesn’t mean that decisions are beyond criticism. Dog Lore Like Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), I would not want to live in a world without dogs. With all due respect to my fellow humans, dogs are superior beings. We should strive not for godliness, but for dogliness. Here are some letters written by dogs to God. (Thanks to Jean Robart for the link.)

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