Monday, October 31, 2005

Cliché: cat got your tongue?

Meaning: reasons you’re so quiet or can’t speak
Rewrite 1: someone push your “mute” button?
Rewrite 2: somebody put you "on hold”?
Rewrite 3: you can’t say anything nice about somebody? Or, your mom caught you saying something bad about someone?
Rewrite 4: you’re quieter than a mime2a with laryngitis.

Comment: Rewrite 3 is stretching it, but if you don’t have to explain that his or her mother must have said, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” you’re doing well.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I
googled “clichés”:
The Modern Rules of Advertising: "Men are tired of their portrayal in advertising, according to a new book by Michael Buerk. But images of men behaving stupidly is not the only cliché which irritates writer John Camm." Mostly British but interesting anyway.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Cliché: eats like a horse

Meaning: voracious appetite
Rewrite 1: eats like a teenager
Rewrite 2: eats like a starved dog
Rewrite 3: has the appetite of a wolf
Rewrite 4: can consume a leg of lamb like a
piranha on a cow

Comment 1: Lots of opportunity here to have fun with the image of someone or something that can’t quite get enough to eat fast enough.

Comment 2: See what the
Parents’ Common Sense Encyclopedia has to say about appetites and what is normal or abnormal.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I
googled “clichés”:
Design Clichés: “…about those symbols we use … or rather, those [that] other people use … to indicate common themes, concepts or ideas. Those symbols which have been used so often that they’ve become clichés.”

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Cliché: I'd lose my head if it weren't attached

Meaning: my memory is so bad… or I’m so forgetful…
Rewrite 1: I’d lose my tongue if it weren’t attached
Rewrite 2: I’d lose track of my keys if they weren’t in my hands
Rewrite 3: I’d leave my coat behind if I weren’t wearing it
Rewrite 4: I’d stop chewing if it didn’t mean food falling from my mouth

Comment 1: This cliché is really about bad memory, so I have skewed the rewrites toward that.

Comment 2: Before you jump all over me for using “weren’t” instead of “wasn’t”, consider that it is proper English to use “weren’t” in the
subjunctive or hypothetical case.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I
googled “clichés”:
The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Clichés: self-explanatory. If you’re into RPGs (role-playing games), you’ll know what this is about.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Cliché: out of the woods

Meaning: out of danger or in the clear
Rewrite 1: out of the
Rewrite 2: out of the weed patchn5
Rewrite 3: clear of the
Rewrite 4: in the middle of an angry crowd

Comment: Decide first whether you want to express being out of some kind of danger or in the clear. Although “out of the woods” can express either, other metaphors can’t.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I
googled “clichés”:
Film Sound Clichés: "Film sound stereotypes and common logic flaws."

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Cliché: a quick buck

Meaning: easy money or easy earnings (could also be barter items)
Rewrite 1: a quick dime (or other
monetary unit)
Rewrite 2: a meal in a minute
Rewrite 3: get some no-sweat sweets
Rewrite 4: fast

Comment: There are a lot of possibilities here. Children might think in terms of candy or other treats, movies, toys, etc. Adults might think in terms of time off, promotions, hobby time, etc.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Cliché: wipe the slate clean

Meaning: start over
Rewrite 1: start over with a sheet of
clean paper
Rewrite 2: begin with a fresh coat of paint
Rewrite 3:
rake away the garbage and start over
Rewrite 4: forget the
mess and try again

Comment: Let's start with a new set of words and get on with it. There are lots of ways to say it.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I
googled “clichés”:
Tokyo on one Cliché a Day, by Seth Stevenson, a regular contributor to, who spent two months in Tokyo on a media fellowship.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Cliché: back in the saddle

Meaning: in charge or active again
Rewrite 1: back to leading the horse to the
Rewrite 2: pushing the buttonsn2 again
Rewrite 3: carrying the
keys again
Rewrite 4: back to counting beans*

*Reference: See "bean counters"

Comment: The quickest rewrites reminded me of other similar clichés (like “walking the beat again”), so I had to be careful not to fall into the trap of accepting the first things that came to mind. I had to work at it, but I think these all work.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I googled “clichés”:
• Avoid this list of cliché leads in news stories via
ACES/cliché leads at

Monday, October 24, 2005

Cliché: fell through the cracks

Meaning: mysteriously lost
Rewrite 1: fell into a
Rewrite 2: slipped under the filing cabinet
Rewrite 3:
warpediv2* into another dimension
Rewrite 4: inadvertently picked up by the elf doing my filing

*Here I mean “warped” in the sense as used in science fiction, in which spaceships can move into other dimensions by manipulating the fabric of space.

Comment: Although this cliché usually means that something – a piece of paper, a project file, or a project itself – has gone unnoticed or has accidentally left a place where you would see it to deal with it, it can also be a sarcastic response that says it was accidentally lost but means was actually intentionally set aside. This is a rarer use.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I googled “clichés”:
• Clichés in photography on, on
Eschew Cliché by Mike Johnston, in The Luminous Landscape, a video journal by Michael Reichmann. Eschew Cliché is available on

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Cliché: jump down your throat

Meaning: seriously get on your case
Rewrite 1: jump on your back
Rewrite 2:
swing at your head like a piñata
Rewrite 3: beat on you like a hammer on an anvil
Rewrite 4: throw your head like a bowling ball

Comment: This one was harder to rewrite than I thought it would be. There are probably lots of parts of the body to "jump on" when you want to show your anger, but most such metaphors sound as much like physical abuse as examples of how far you’re willing to go to show someone you’re serious about something.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I googled “clichés”:

Cliché Challenge by The Progressive Review tracks the number of references on for various clichés.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Cliché: see the glass as half empty

Meaning: having a negative view of life
Rewrite 1: see a storm cloud without a silver lining
Rewrite 2: see a rain shower as a hurricane
Rewrite 3: view a
promotion as piling on* more work
Rewrite 4: think of winning the
lottery as increasing your tax burden

Comment: This cliché provides lots of opportunities to be creative. There are lots of situations you can see from either a negative or a positive point of view. You can also flip the concept by seeing the glass as half full and have some fun with that as a rewrite: See a hurricane as a chance to blow autumn leaves out of your yard or a flat tire as an opportunity to flex some muscles.

*Piling on: consider this also in the context of the sports idiom in football in which multiple (way more than necessary) defensive players jump on the player in possession of the ball.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I googled “clichés”
• Consider
The Political Cliché Site for words on candidates, how to run a campaign, and more. Part of The Sports Cliché site.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Cliché: zip your lip

Meaning: close your mouth or be quiet
Rewrite 1:
snapiv9 your flapn2
Rewrite 2: close your
pie hole
Rewrite 3: lock it shut
Rewrite 4: plug your escape hatch

Comment: All of these rewrites would work if you put them in the right context, but they could also be taken as a double entendre if you aren’t careful.

More reading about clichés
What I found when I googled “clichés”
• Clichés to say in times of trouble is what
The Book of Clichés is all about.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Cliché: can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear

Meaning: can’t make something lovely out of something ugly
Rewrite 1: can’t make a
silk purse out of an elephant’s ear
Rewrite 2: can’t make a
T-bone out of stew meat
Rewrite 3: can’t turn a
hovel into a mansion
Rewrite 4: can’t turn
slop3 into cheesecake

Comment: Although there are plenty of ugly things and lots of lovely things, they can't all be related into a metaphor like this. The original comparison had a rural quality to it that can be limiting for some writers. To preserve that quality, the fourth rewrite might be better with something more like "can't turn slop into cake" or "can't turn slop into meat loaf."

More reading about clichés
What I found when I googled “clichés”
The Movie Clichés List by Giancarlo Cairella. Lots of different categories of movie clichés, like airplanes, alcohol, and nightmares.
From a reader of this blog (thanks for the plug on Twitter!)(Updated 11.11.09)
• See The Loco Diner for reuse of this cliche. Nicely written.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Cliché: a stitch in time saves nine

Meaning: tend to it before it gets much worse
Rewrite 1: a dime in the meter now saves a $20 ticket later
Rewrite 2: a drip patched now avoids a flood4 bailed later
Rewrite 3: leaves1b(1) blown away today avoid piles of leaves raked1 later
Rewrite 4: you can manage it today while it's small or handle it as an emergency tomorrow

Comment: Just ask yourself, "What can I do today while it is a small matter that if I put off until a later time will seem more difficult or unmanageable?"

More reading about clichés
What I found when I googled “clichés”
The Sports Cliché List by Lots of different categories of sports clichés, like “factor” clichés – clichés with “factor” in the phrase.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Cliché: not for all the tea in China

Meaning: not for all you could get of something that is in abundance
Rewrite 1: not for all the coffee in
Rewrite 2: not for all the burkas in Iran
Rewrite 3: not for all the apples in the orchard
Rewrite 4: not for all the steps in the Sears Tower

Comment: There are lots of choices for comparison here. Just think of something of which there is an abundance and you pretty much have a rewrite.

More reading about clichés

What I found when I googled “clichés”
  • This has little to do with clichés in the context in which I use them, but it is kind of fun. Read Shoot the Cliché by jheather.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Cliché: know it like the back of my hand

Meaning: intimately known
Rewrite 1: know it like the
moles1 on my chest
Rewrite 2: know it like the
frown lines on my (spouse's) forehead
Rewrite 3: know it like the scent of my (lover's) favorite perfume
Rewrite 4: could recognize it in a crowd like a mother bird knows a
chick's chirp
Rewrite 5: could pick him out of a
lineup of identical twins

Comment: In the last rewrite, I wanted to use "look-a-likes" for its
alliterative qualities, but isn't it redundantc to say "a lineup of look-a-likes"?

New feature:
More reading about clichés
What I found when I googled "cliches"
The New Cliché: "It's the Wikipedia of..." at "loose wire" on September 29, 2005, by WSJ online columnist Jeremy Wagstaff.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Cliché: a fish out of water

Meaning: someone or something outside of its natural element
Rewrite 1: a whale out of water
Rewrite 2: a lion out of the wild
Rewrite 3: an
igloo out of the arctic
Rewrite 4: a bear in Goldilocks’ house
Rewrite 5: a man in a
lingerie store

Comment: In this exercise, I listed things out of their natural element and things in an
unnatural element.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Cliché: busier than a one-armed paper hanger

Meaning: ridiculously busy
Rewrite 1: busier than a one-handed
paper hanger
Rewrite 2: busier than a dog-walker in a yard full of cats
Rewrite 3: busier than a
pumpkin-carver on a steep hill
Rewrite 4: more distracted than a
cross-dresser in a locker room

Comment: There are a lot of interesting prospects for this cliché. Obviously the more extreme the case the more fun the metaphor. The last one above is a bit weaker than the others, but it still serves as an example of someone busy in very different, if not extremely different, circumstances.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Cliché: cry over spilled milk

Meaning: to get upset over something basic
Rewrite 1: cry over spilled salt
Rewrite 2: cry over a dropped donut
Rewrite 3: lose sleep over losing a dime
Rewrite 4:
hyperventilate over a typo

Comment: This cliché is sometimes also used to indicate sorrow over losing something basic when it is hard to come by. For instance, in tough times one might become upset over spilling the last serving of milk that one finds costly to replace.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Cliché: variety is the spice of life

Meaning: diversity is good
Rewrite 1: variety makes life sweet
Rewrite 2: variety makes almost everything better
Rewrite 3: variety is what’s great about life
Rewrite 4: diversity is sweetness itself
Rewrite 5: If variety were a
soup, it would be “M-m-m, good!”

Caution: With this sentiment, it’s easy to sound
sappy. Keep coming back to the essence of the cliché, which is that variety – diversity – is a great thing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Cliché: step on your toes

Meaning: get in your way or interfere with your progress
Rewrite 1: step on your heel
Rewrite 2: step on your
sandals (or wingtips)
Rewrite 3: pull in front of you
Rewrite 4:
rear-end you

Comment: These all describe accidental interference. More intended interference might be “moved ahead of you” or “blocked* you”.

*block -- transitive verb, in the sense of 4a.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Cliché: to pull the wool over your eyes

Meaning: to pull something on, or hide something from, you
Rewrite 1: to pull your hat down over your eyes
Rewrite 2: to tint your glasses with
Rewrite 3: to mask the problem with duct tape
Rewrite 4: pulled the blinds shut and left with the chords

Comment: Most of these can be said with sarcasm, and all of them are audacious; have some fun with these, but also think of some that are more serious.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Cliché: …and the rest is history

Meaning: …and everyone knows the rest of the story
Rewrite 1: …and the rest is in the paper
Rewrite 2: …and the rest is legend
Rewrite 3: …and the media has covered the rest
Rewrite 4: …and you know the rest of the story
Rewrite 5: …and for the rest, consult the history books

Caution: It’s easy to sound flippant with a rewrite of this cliché.

Comment: If it’s “history” because so much has been written about it, you could name other resources, like the encyclopedia, dictionary, Internet, Web, science books, library, reference section, and so on. If it’s “history” because it’s part of recorded history, you could cite those sources, as in history books, History 101, archeology books, anthropology books, pre-history, mythology books, historical records, genealogical records, your grandmother, etc.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Cliché: idle hands are the devil's workshop

Meaning: having nothing to do leads to mischief
Rewrite 1: feet with nowhere to go lead to a footpath of trouble
Rewrite 2: twiddling fingers often go hand-in-hand with mischief
Rewrite 3: much evil is due when there’s little else to do (or when there's little to do, much evil is due.)
Rewrite 4: stay busy to stay sane

Comment: I found this one more interesting to rewrite than many others. It almost has a Confucian quality to it. Keep tongue in cheek when it’s wisdom you seek!

Note: I'm linking to for definitions, which is a service users will very soon need to register for. I don't think there's a cost involved. It offers a very nice set of features beyond what you may find on other online dictionaries. Some of these words are fairly elementary but I wanted to serve a wide audience, which would include children learning some of these words for the first time.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Cliché: the grass is always greener on the other side

Meaning: what you don’t have always looks better than what you do have
Rewrite 1: the grass is always greener in your neighbor’s yard
Rewrite 2: the alternate route is always quicker
Rewrite 3: the other waiting line always goes faster
Rewrite 4: I knew I should have chosen the pecan pie instead of pumpkin!

Comment: There are probably no statistics to prove it, but we seem to always make the wrong choices. At the store, the cashier line you didn’t take always goes faster. At the drive-in bank, the line you choose is always slower. At the clothier, you knew you should have bought the green shirt instead of the blue one. No matter how well you water your lawn, the next door neighbor’s grass is always thicker and greener. We are so sure we could have made a better choice, we are never satisfied, so there are lots of choices for rewriting this cliché.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Cliché: with a fine tooth comb

Meaning: in exceptional detail
Rewrite 1: with a fine-
bristled brush
Rewrite 2: with an
electron microscope
Rewrite 3: with a hefty magnifying lens
Rewrite 4: with the eyes of a tax auditor

Comment: It is easy to quickly use up instruments that can bring matters close at hand, so to recast this one you need to go well beyond the obvious methods. In this case, I went for an occupation known for its use of intense scrutiny. What other occupations might you tap for your metaphor? A jeweler? A watchmaker? An attorney? A fine art restorer?

Note: See definitions in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. (

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Cliché: a horse of a different color

Meaning: different than originally envisioned
Rewrite 1: a house of a different color
Rewrite 2: a cat of a different stripe
Rewrite 3: a dog of a different breed
Rewrite 4: funny how looking at it in a different way casts in it a different light

Comment: This cliché was used effectively in the 1939
film, The Wizard of Oz, turning it from a cliché about differences in perception to an actual horse of a different color. You have a large palette to work with here, using differences in color, material, texture, quality, and more.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cliché: come hell or high water

Meaning: come whatever the worst you can imagine
Rewrite 1: come flood or ice storm
Rewrite 2: come my mother-in-law or the IRS
Rewrite 3: come tax time or bankruptcy

Rewrite 4: even with the threat of prison or cleaning the toilet

Comment: I had a wonderful relationship with my mother-in-law, so that example might not be all that terrible for some people. In general, come up with a list of the worst things you can imagine and try to play them off each other; for instance, bad visits would be from your mother-in-law and the IRS; bad weather could be floods and ice storms, and so on.

Note on capitalization of "hell": I thought it was standard to capitalize "hell," but in looking at various online dictionaries, and even the Associated Press Stylebook, it is standard to use lower-case "h" with capitalization secondary. However, the Associated Press Stylebook and many (not all) online dictionaries say to capitalize Hades.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Cliché: everything but the kitchen sink

Meaning: everything but what they couldn’t grab and haul
Rewrite 1: everything but the front door
Rewrite 2: everything but the walk-in closet
Rewrite 3: all they left was the floor and a few walls
Rewrite 4: they took everything but the wall sockets and switches

Comment: There are a couple of ways to look at this cliché: One is, “they took everything but what they couldn’t physically haul” and another is, “they left everything but the essentials.” They both narrow down your choices.

Rewriting tips: What besides the kitchen sink couldn't you grab and haul? Built-in appliances like stoves and microwaves; plumbing fixtures like sinks, toilets, bidets, and tubs/showers; walls, doors, windows, floors, fireplaces, cabinets and countertops; ceilings like lighting fixtures, fans, and attic doors; basement stairs; furnace; water heater; water softener; built-in speakers; and so on.

What about other places or things where you could broaden the sense of the cliché: in the office, store, or school; in a vehicle like the car, van, truck, or SUV; in a town like city hall, cop shop, or library; or even in the sky like clouds, the moon, or the sun?

Monday, October 03, 2005

Cliché: welcome to the club

Meaning: you aren’t alone
Rewrite 1: welcome to our side
Rewrite 2: you’re part of a crowd
Rewrite 3: membership to that club isn’t exclusive

Comment: I wrote these on a Monday morning after a long weekend, so my brain is operating on small wattage. Maybe you have some more suggestions?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Cliché: Rome wasn't built in a day

Meaning: large projects take time
Rewrite 1: Chicago didn’t go up overnight
Rewrite 2: the city didn’t just show up
Rewrite 3: even the smallest building takes time to erect
Rewrite 4: last time I looked, there was no magic bean for sprouting a house
Comment: At first, rewriting this cliché was easy. I just substituted cities or buildings and I was finished. Then I tried to go beyond construction, and it wasn't easy anymore. What kinds of non-construction metaphors can you draw for this cliché?