The 10 Silliest Clichés Since Sliced Bread

Aaron Rimstidt has a bone to pick with some of English's overused phrases.

Take the Bull by the Horns By Brian Sanchez
Illustration by Brian Sanchez.

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Clichés. They come a dime a dozen; people use them like they are going out of style. Many make sense: it is indeed easier to take the path of least resistance, no one likes a backseat driver, and it’s certainly better to be there than to be square.

But some don’t have any rhyme or reason, others aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, and still more are dumber than a box of rocks. I don’t want to rain on the parade, but it goes without saying that it’s time to take the gloves off and get down to brass tacks, because I’ve got an axe to grind with the silliest clichés since the chicken or the egg.

1. You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too. Really? I thought that was the point of having cake. What else are you supposed to do with it? Throwing it at people sounds entertaining, but might lead to negative consequences. In reality, most of the people that have cake will also eat it too.

2. There’s No Such Thing As a Stupid Question. Not true. There are lots of stupid questions. Asking the police officer who pulled you over, “How many stinkin’ cops does it take to screw in a light bulb?” is a stupid question. Asking your significant other, “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” is a stupid question. Obvious questions can also be dumb. “It’s cold out here, isn’t it?” in the middle of a blizzard, and “did that hurt?” when someone slammed their thumb with a hammer are questions that do not make one look very smart. Perhaps we should substitute a better saying: “Don’t be a jerk if someone asks a stupid question.”

3. The Third Time Is the Charm. First coined by Thomas Edison when he invented the light bulb, “the third time is the charm” has changed a lot over the years. The reason is simple: it’s disheartening to hear “the 10,000th time is the charm.” It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. We needed something more inspirational, so we now use this abbreviated version.

4. Dirt Poor vs. Filthy Rich. Well, which one is it? I probably don’t understand because I am mired in the begrimed middle class. Or maybe because I am squalidly average. Or verminously run of the mill.

5. Take the Bull By the Horns. I wonder if anyone has thought about what would happen if someone actually attempted to do this. It definitely wouldn’t be pretty. First of all, it’s highly unlikely that someone would be able to grab the horns in the first place, because they’re attached to two tons of hooves, muscle, and anger-management problems. For the sake of argument, let’s say someone does grab the bull by the horns. Then what? What could a 200-pound man possibly do when he has hold of a 2,500-pound bull’s horns?

6. Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover.Not always true. Sometimes you can. For example, if a book’s cover says “Random House Dictionary,” or “Auto Repair for Dummies” it’s easy to judge what’s inside. Likewise, if someone’s wearing a football jersey, he or she is probably at least a casual sports fan. Someone wearing a bright orange shirt that says “Inmate: 27634,” has probably escaped from prison, and a good judgment call would be to get as far away from that person as possible.

7. A Stopped Clock Is Right Twice A Day. While true, the real problem is that people say this as if it actually means something. There are 60 seconds every minute, 60 minutes every hour, and 24 hours every day, resulting in a grand total of 86,400 seconds per day. This means that a stopped clock is right 1/43,200th of the time — not a big number and probably why no one pays attention to stopped clocks. If a person is only right 1/43,200th of the time, I’m not going to pay attention to him or her either. And don’t get me started about a stopped military clock.

8. The Five-Second Rule. Amazingly, people are convinced that if a piece of food is on the ground under five seconds, it’s still okay to eat. While it would be nice if this were true, alas, it’s not. It turns out the ground is not very sanitary. For starters, it’s covered in dirt, which is not very clean. That’s why we refer to unclean things as “dirty.” Furthermore, many things on the ground are really unsanitary, like dog poo. Anything that falls on that, even for only four and a half seconds, is not okay to eat. And why the five second time-frame? How is that more sanitary than six seconds? This rule truly doesn’t make any sense.

9. As Pure As the Driven Snow. Where does snow lie? That’s right — on the ground. We just covered why that isn’t pure. Furthermore, water isn’t so pure itself. That is why we have water purification systems. “As pure as unfiltered, frozen water lying on the dirt.”

10. If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another. No kidding. This is like a doctor saying, “If you don’t have the flu, you must have some other ailment,” or a detective saying, “if the criminal isn’t here, he’s somewhere else.” Certainly, this cliché is true: by definition we must be referring to a thing when we use the word “it,” so when “it” is not one thing, it must be another according to the English language. It’s just that it’s not very helpful, because “it” could be anything and everything else, or “it” could even be nothing at all.

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