Wednesday, May 22, 2013

cliché: lower the boom

Meaning:  Various: To punch out; to chastise or punish.

Example: After his cheeky remark, I lowered the boom, delivering my own one-two verbal punch.

Origins: Sailing (beam securing sails to masts, which when swung across the deck may hit someone or knock them overboard); also Theater (beam for staging that might fall or be lowered quickly to knock someone down).

(Definitions and origins.)

  • lower the beam
  • let loose the boom
  • exercise the boom
  • give chase with the tackle
  • unleash the scaffolding
  • rock the rigging

Discussion: There are lots of ways to say "wrecking ball" with either sailing or thespian jargon, but you need to be careful not to be obscure. In the end, I deleted a couple that though they applied probably wouldn’t have been clear. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

cliché: behind the eight ball (8 ball)

Meaning: Put at a disadvantage or unfavorable position (definition).

Example: With nothing but difficult options before him, Bill found himself behind the eight ball.

Origins: Billiards and the game of Eight Ball, perhaps Eight-ball Croquet. First use is in the 1929 Sheboygan Press about baseball. (Source.)

  • behind the hate ball
  • behind the black ball
  • behind the odd ball
  • behind the mid-ball
  • behind the killer ball
  • menaced by the eight ball
  • intimidated by the eight ball
  • gamed by the eight ball
  • galled by the eight ball
  • on the unlucky side of the eight ball

Discussion: I tried to play on the variety of ways you might think of facing an eight ball in a game of billiards. 

Update: I had struggled with rewriting this cliche for some reason. As I was promoting his page on social media, an entirely new angle hit me - other game metaphors:

  • caught between the chutes and the ladders
  • caught at the bottom of a Sorry! slide

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

cliché: the bee’s knees

Meaning: Excellent quality (or the small things in life that count)

Example: Those miniature gold bar earrings are the bee’s knees.

Origins: Various and undecided. Bee’s knees carry the awesome pollen. 

  • the cow’s udders
  • the sheep’s locks
  • the bird’s peeps
  • the hummingbird’s wings
  • the puppy's cuddle
  • the striker’s toes
  • the punter’s feet
  • the penitent’s knees

Discussion: I suggest there are few things so small that provide so much gold as the bee’s knees, but there are lots of things we probably don’t consider that proportionally provide an equal amount of good. That’s what I took into consideration in rewriting this cliché. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

cliché: beauty is only skin deep

Meaning: Appearances can be deceptive; physical beauty is superficial (definition).

Example: Her words not so gracious as her appearance, we learned her beauty is only skin deep.

Origins: First use attributed to Sir Thomas Overbury, 1613, 1856. (Source.)


  • beauty is a blemish of the skin
  • beauty doesn’t reach to the bone
  • beauty is a tattoo
  • grace is an outer garment only
  • once the skin breaks the beauty bleeds away
  • glamour is but a mask
  • loveliness is a linen few care to turn down
Discussion: Once again, we break this idiom down into its essential meaning to create its rewrites.

Monday, April 29, 2013

cliché: beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Meaning: Beauty (or ugliness) is subjective (definition).

Example: She says he’s handsome, I say he’s average; such is our notion of beauty, which is in the eye of the beholder.

Origins: In various forms, 3rd century BC Greek, 16th century AD Shakespeare and Lyly, but not in its current form until the 19th century AD. (Source.

  • in beauty, the beholder sets the gauge
  • beauty is subject to the jaundiced eye
  • glamour is an astigmatism true to the beholder
  • fairness favors the beholder
  • loveliness is the gift of the onlooker
  • charm is an artifact of the beguiled
  • grace is a spectator event
  • elegance is a biased view

Discussion: This rewrite took me a while. The trick here is to decide what to call “beauty” and then how to acknowledge its reception. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

cliché: beat the bushes

Meaning: seek something diligently; also, work hard to achieve something.

Example: Sales department knows, when earnings are down you beat the bushes for leads.

Origins: From hunting practice of flushing birds from hiding by hitting bushes with a stick.

Source for meaning and origins.

  • beat the flora
  • beat the shrubs                         
  • thrash the chaparral
  • whack the vegetation
  • jostle the low hanging fruit
  • wake the early birds

Discussion: I’ve attempted to address both the original wording and the nuances of meanings. See what you can do.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

cliché: beat around the bush

Meaning: addressing an issue in a round-about way (definition).

Example: When asked for details, she hemmed and hawed then beat around the bush.

Origins: Hunting during medieval times, flushing wild game out of the bushes at the risk of also flushing out more dangerous game. (Source.)

  • beat around the tall grass
  • send the lads into the bushes
  • make noises from the treetops
  • walk the edges of the crowd
  • drive around the traffic jam
  • get to the heart by way of the lungs
  • cross the river at the creek

Discussion: The key to this rewrite isn’t so much to duplicate the original as it is to restate its intent, which is to avoid the danger or inconvenience by taking other means.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

cliché: be there or be square

Meaning: direction to conform or be out of step with the cool people (definition).

Example: Dude, everybody who’s anybody will be at the party – be there or be square!

Origins: Its roots evolved over the last couple of centuries, but the cliché takes root in 1940s-50s with jazz as a reference to the square as something that followed an established order turned into one that was confined by that order and not “with it” or “cool.” (Source 1. Source 2.)

  • be there or be contraire
  • be there or lose your cool
  • be there or be drool
  • be there or be outta here
  • be there or never be here
  • be one of us or never be one of us
  • come along to get along

Discussion: There is a lot of room to work with here for a rewrite. There is the rhyme, coolness, conformity, inclusion – this cliché is rich with opportunity for rework.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

cliché: bats in the belfry

Meaning: crazy or eccentric behavior.

Example: Swerving across three lanes of busy traffic, he must have been navigating with bats in his belfry.

Origins: 1900s American authors of various genre.

Definition and Origins Source.

  • bats in the tower
  • squirrels in the attic
  • spiders in the crown
  • monkeys in the museum
  • gremlins in the observatory

Discussion: This is about erratic behavior, so a rewrite should be about erratic-acting animals in tall or stable places.

Friday, April 12, 2013

cliché: banging your head against a brick wall

Meaning: repetitively doing something that will result in no positive effect (definition).

Example: My son had already made up his mind, and trying to change his decision was like banging my head against a brick wall.

Origins: Could not find one.

  • hitting your head against a cement wall
  • yelling at a brick wall
  • sparring with a brick wall
  • having a staring contest with a masonry wall

Discussion: I was really surprised that I couldn’t find an origin for this one, but I suspect it’s buried in some English garden. The meaning is apparent, without an origin.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

cliché: a basket case

Meaning: One who is of a hopeless or useless physical or mental state (definition).

Example: He was so upset by the accident, he had become a mental basket case.

Origins: World War I, describing a soldier who returned from war having lost both arms and both legs. (Source.) Offensive slang. (Source.)

  • N/A

Discussion: I’m going to take the unusual step of suggesting we not rewrite this cliché but because of its offensive nature we discard it. Offensive why? Because it treats the physically or mentally disabled as “hopeless” and “useless” instead of as honored and hopeful members of society. Even in its original use, officials used the term to deny that such individuals even existed. I suggest we deny the offense and not describe anyone in these or similar terms.

Monday, April 08, 2013

cliché: a barn burner

Meaning: something that causes a lot of interest or excitement (definition).

Example: The championship game between the top two contenders was a real barn burner.

Origins: American 1835-45, reference to burning down a barn to get rid of rats and the attention it causes. (Source.)


  • a barn razer
  • a tower toppler
  • a bridge dropper
  • a roof collapser
  • a sky blazer
  • a river blocker

Discussion: While these don’t all have the same origins as a barn burning, they likely would all get public attention and acclaim.

Friday, April 05, 2013

cliché: baptism by fire

(also, baptism of fire)

Meaning: an ordeal, especially of martyrdom; soldier’s first battle experiences (definition).

Example: On his first day, the customer service rep faced a first rate consumer rage call, an epic baptism of fire.

Origins: First used in French to reference a soldier’s experience in battle, 1822. Also Biblical references. (Source.)


  • baptism by conflagration
  • blessing by bayonet
  • passion by ambush
  • ecstasy by battle
  • immersion by Armageddon
  • purification by scrabble

Discussion: There are a couple of different ways to go with this idiom. Be inventive.

Friday, March 29, 2013

cliché: bank on it

Meaning: do with certainty (definition).

Example: Her recipe for cherry pie is a winner, you may bank on it.

Origins: Late 1800s; alludes to banks as a place of safe storage for money. (Source.)


  • deposit on it
  • invest with it
  • secure a loan with it
  • bet your house on it
  • build a career on it
  • give a blind date a second call over it

Discussion: This rewrite is about being so confident in something that you can move ahead as you would in other interactions of life with confidence.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

cliché: the whole ball of wax

Meaning: everything inclusive (definition).

Example: The book contains everything you want to know about the topic, the whole ball of wax.

Origins: Uncertain, but first recorded in 9th edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1953. Associated with advertising usage. May also have origins in old English estate law as a way to assign inheritance. (Source.)

  • the whole block of beeswax
  • the whole wad of gum
  • the entire lump of coal
  • the bursting cache of trash
  • the rich roll of cash
  • the full load of laundry
  • entire wall with cracks, dents, and all

Discussion: With no clear origins on which to draw for inspiration, I’ll break it down into parts – “ball of wax”, “whole ball”, “ball”, “wax”, etc. 

All you ever might want to know about wax from Candle Cauldron and Rotblatt Sculpture.

Friday, March 22, 2013

cliché: a bald faced liar

Meaning: undisguised or brazen liar (definition).

Example: The bald faced liar, it was as if his lie was his show of contempt.

Origin: 1640-1650 but with no explanation. Self-explanatory with expression? (Source.)

  • bare faced liar
  • open faced liar
  • wide faced liar
  • plain faced liar
  • blunt mugged liar
  • simple looking liar
  • wide-eyed liar

Discussion: Sometimes confused with bold faced liar, though they have slightly different meanings.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

cliché: bait and switch

Meaning: sales technique or ploy of offering something of higher value then encouraging the other person to accept something of lesser value (definition).

Example: First he offered me free tickets to the movies, then he pulled a bait and switch and offered me full-price tickets to the opera.

Origin: Bait used since 1300, switch used since 1890s but pairing of two dates from 1920s. (Source.)

  • carrot and stick
  • dangle and tangle
  • deal and steal
  • promise and pretense

Discussion: The original was pretty descriptive, but with a little imagination we can re-establish some of the feeling of having the deal ripped away from you. I also recognize that “carrot and stick” can be a cliché, but it’s usually a metaphor for reward and punishment, not for breaking a deal, so I think we can reuse it here effectively.

Friday, March 15, 2013

cliché: bag and baggage

Meaning: all one’s possessions (definition).

Example: They reproduced the entire household, bag and baggage.

Origins: Precedes contemporary English, as found in Rymer’s Foedera, 1422. Earliest English is 1525, Shakespeare in 1600. (Source.)

  • bags and boxes
  • cabinets and drawers
  • nooks, crannies, and corners
  • house and storage
  • house, basement, and garage

Discussion: The idea in this idiom is to express where someone carries or masses their belongings. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

cliché: bad to the bone

Meaning: thoroughly bad (definition).

Example: The thief stole even their last roll of toilet paper; he was bad to the bone.

Origins: “to the bone” = as completely as possible, based on trimming all the meat from a bone, leaving no waste. (Source: Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, page 38.)


  • crummy to the core
  • bastard to the bone
  • mean to the marrow
  • rotten to the root
  • bad to the board foot

Discussion: The meaningful root to explore turned out to be “to the bone.” When I researched the full idiom, I kept getting pushed to the 1980’s song by Thoroughgood, yet found nothing of value on the idiom’s origins. When I researched the root, an idiom in its own right, that’s when I found this source. 

I tried to retain the minor alliterative nature of the idiom. There are surely many other ways to rewrite this cliché without that stricture.

Monday, March 11, 2013

cliché: a bad seed

Meaning: someone or something that is a bad influence or produces bad results (definition).

Example: Always getting into mischief, the youth was the bad seed of a troubled family.

Origins: Biblical references to the effect of sewing seed in fields. (Source.)


  • a flawed seed
  • a wayward seed
  • a seed of no good character
  • a withered planting
  • a pit with no future
  • a fruitless fount
  • an ill-gained grain
  • an unproductive kernel
  • a profitless pip

Discussion: Some definitions prescribe a genetic element as the source of poor production, but the usage I’m familiar with makes no such association, unless it’s simply understood.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

cliché: a bad hair day

Meaning: literally an untidy-hair day; also a disagreeable day. (definitions).

Example: Nothing was going well, it struck me I was having a bad hair day.

Origins: Literal use of words, became popular saying 1990-1995. (Source.)

  • a pillow hair day
  • a convertible-air hair day
  • a knobby sweater day
  • a chipped tooth day
  • an open zipper day

Discussion: Many of these define bad hair, others define a bad day.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

cliché: a bum rap

Meaning: unfair blame or criticism (definition).

Example: The website got a bum rap for being difficult to reach, which was the result of a DOS attack.  (examples.)

Origins: bum as an adjective means of poor quality or useless, 19th century; rap as a term for criminal charge comes circa 1865 (History1. History 2.) 

  • bum blame
  • bum slam
  • twisted rap
  • lame critique
  • cheap lip
  • stretched bitch

Discussion: I have gone from very close to the original to very far from it but still encasing the meaning. This one took some work with a thesaurus.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

cliché: bad blood

Meaning: animosity between people (definition).

Example: A good fence often keeps bad blood between neighbors from escalating into a good war.

Origins: Blood and emotions; among first uses, Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb in 1823. (Source.)

  • foul blood
  • tainted blood
  • bile in the blood
  • vein hatred
  • ill tempered muscle
  • fury in the guts

Discussion: I have tried to rework both the concept of emotion and where that emotion resides. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

cliché: back to the drawing board

Meaning: restart from the beginning (definition).

Example: When the project failed, the boss said, “back to the drawing board, team.”

Origins: New Yorker magazine cartoon in 1941. (Source.) 

  • back to the drafting table (sketch book)
  • start over with clean paper
  • fresh doodle-pad, lads
  • lets refresh with a mental reboot
  • sharpen the wits and freshen the creative juices
  • go out the door and come back in like this idea never happened

Discussion: How might we rewrite this to reflect the switch over to generating ideas on computer screens?

Friday, February 22, 2013

cliché: back to square one

Meaning: return to the beginning; start again.

Example: If this experiment doesn’t yield the answer, we’ll have to go back to square one.

Origins: Various possibilities: English football broadcasts, board games, or hopscotch.

  (Definitions and origins.)


  • revisit square one
  • back to “Start”
  • back to launch
  • time to reboot
  • reset to zero

Discussion: I mainly worked with the board game scenario, since that seems to me to be the most apt metaphor. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

cliché: a backstabber

Meaning: to attack someone unfairly (definition). 

Example: As a co-worker reporting discreetly to the boss, she was a backstabber scuttling his career.

Origins: From 1920’s, one who acts behind someone’s back or “stabs your back.” (Source 1. Source 2.) 

  • a blindside attacker
  • an ear thumper
  • a kidney puncher
  • a heel scraper or crusher
  • a ponytail dipper or grabber

Discussion: I struggled to find something closer to “back stabber” but didn’t come up with anything. Perhaps you will?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

cliché: a back seat driver

Meaning: one who criticizes from the sidelines (definition).

Example: From the other side of the counter, Marge made continual suggestions on how to mix the recipe, in her typical role as back-seat driver.

Origins: From the modern day automobile passenger who freely comments on the driving habits of drivers. (Source.)

  • back seat adviser
  • rumble seat supervisor
  • rear seat moderator
  • coach seat pilot
  • over-the-shoulder editor
  • offsite oversight
  • blind guide 

Discussion: Not sure these are all equivalent rewrites, but they all give a flavor of the metaphor intended. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

cliché: a back handed compliment

Meaning: Insult disguised as a compliment (definition)(thesaurus).

Example: He delivered a backhanded compliment by insulting her on the strength of her perfume. (Example.)

Origin: As a synonym for left-handed and the left side of the body considered sinister. (Source.)

  • a knuckle-backed compliment
  • back handed kudos
  • aced an insult
  • a flutter-eyed compliment
  • a slight served to your weak side
  • a slap delivered with a left-handed wink

Discussion: (1) Here, “weak side” and “back hand” can apply to either left-handedness or right-handedness. (2) Also used as "back handed comment."

Saturday, February 09, 2013

cliché: back against the wall

Meaning: desperate, with no other options (definition).

Example: In a strange city and her wallet stolen, her back was against the wall.

Origins: expression from fighting. (Also, “back to the wall”). (Source.)

  • back against the bricks
  • backside to sheet rock
  • face to the fence
  • facing six sides of the walls
  • penned in by walls, fences, and borders
  • no escape but a bottomless pit
  • facing a ladder well shy of a climb to the top
  • facing a hallway ending in a locked door

Discussion: What other words do you have for “wall” or “back”? 

Friday, February 08, 2013

cliché: a babe in the woods

Meaning: a naive, defenseless young person (definition).

Example: Sometimes Charlie saw things so simply, he was a babe in the woods.

Origins: Traditional children’s tale “Babes in the Wood”. (Source.)

  • a lamb in the woods
  • a babe in the briers
  • a chick in the fox den
  • a rich kid in the hood
  • a yuppie in the barnyard
  • a sweetie in the locker room
  • a innocent in the exercise yard

Discussion: Admittedly, some of these may cross class lines or stereotypes, which isn’t my intention; rather it’s to show someone far out of his or her element. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

cliché: an ax (axe) to grind

Meaning: Have a dispute or issue with another (definition). Also, having self-interest for doing something (definition).

Example: In being left paying for lunch, I had an ax to grind with my colleague. (Also: Holding the luncheon at his restaurant where he stood to make a lot of money, he had a pretty big ax to grind.)

Origins: (Source1.) (Source2.)

  • an ax to hone
  • an ax to wield
  • a grumble to parlay
  • an office to tend
  • a gift horse to feed
  • a sugar daddy to sweeten

Discussion: I’ve attempted to serve both versions, first in the top three then in the bottom three.

Friday, February 01, 2013

cliché: at the end of the day

Meaning: the bottom line, in the final analysis (definition).

Example: 1+1 will always equal 2, at the end of the day. (Examples.)

Origins: Seems to have been first used in a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) but first recorded uses in print were from the 1950s onward (source). Saw a rapid rise in usage from 1985 onward (source).

  • as day closes
  • as the final seconds tick away
  • faced to choose at the midnight hour
  • when debate time ends
  • lacking extended time for flags and penalties
  • at end of official play
  • as you time out

Discussion: You might think of ways to recast this idiom other than the time metaphor, but for this rewrite I have maintained that theme.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

cliché: at the end of my rope

Meaning: out of options or alternatives (definition).

Example: My cell phone was locked in the car with my keys and wallet - I was at the end of my rope.

Origins: A rope thrown to someone for help or provided as a resource. (Sources. OED [b])

  • at the loose end of an untethered rope (rescue)
  • grabbed the short end of a shrinking rope (resource)
  • ran out of ladder
  • reduced to pennies and pocket lint
  • bailing with a bottomless pail
  • at the mercy of a slippery rope with no grip
  • on the last strand of an unraveling rope
  • watched the rescue party pass me by

Discussion: Different from “at the end of my tether” (see OED [a] above for distinction. Also sometimes thought to mean “I can’t take anymore.” I didn't address those here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

cliché: at the eleventh hour

Meaning: at the last possible moment (definition).

Example: They averted a strike reaching an agreement at the 11th hour. (Examples.)

Origins: The Bible – the last hour of sunlight before darkness sets in at the 11th hour. (Sources.)

  • a quarter to too late
  • at the moment of last resort
  • with time only to utter the final word
  • with the clock showing just shy of “too late”
  • between 1 and 0 in the final countdown

Discussion: I struggled to find a closer revision of the actual words “the 11th hour” but it was a toughie. What ideas do you have?

Friday, January 25, 2013

cliché: at the crack of dawn

Meaning: When the light of day first appears (definition).

Example: The stars begin to disappear at the crack of dawn. (Examples.)

Origins: Old English, “crack” means “moment”, thus “moment of dawn.” (Sources.)

  • at the smack of dawn
  • at break of day
  • as light of day peeps
  • as the sun wakens
  • as night calls it a day

Discussion: This one was harder to rewrite than I thought it would be. What other metaphors have you created?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

cliché: asleep at the wheel

Meaning: Inattentive or literally asleep while on duty (definition).

Example: He nearly missed his exit because he was “asleep at the wheel.”

Origins: 19th century American railroading. (Origins.)

  • Dozing at the wheel
  • Asleep at the keyboard
  • Napping while knitting
  • At rest in the guard tower
  • Tuning the horn with some Z’s
  • Monitoring the meter with half-open eyes
  • Driving with another pair of eyes

Discussion: In this rewrite, I tried to come up with parallel idioms for the original, then I tried to recast it a little to approach the idea with similar metaphors.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

cliché: as plain as the nose on your face

Meaning: Very obvious (definition).

Example: The sore on his lip was as plain as the nose on your face. (Source.)

Origins: Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Thomas Hardy’s Pair Blue Eyes, 1873. (Origins.)

  • as plain as the snout on a sow
  • as obvious as the horn on a rhino
  • as evident as a turret on a tank
  • as patent as whiskers on a chin
  • as sure as cute on a kitten

Discussion: Although the idiom is mostly about everyday obviousness, you might also read it to be about plainness and certainty.