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Monday, 1 July, 2002, 14:04 GMT 15:04 UK
Hannan's Call to Order
Veteran political broadcaster Patrick Hannan
Spin may be a thing of the past but Patrick Hannan has another bone to pick with politicians - clichés.

I'm sorry to say that I groaned out loud when I saw the Labour Party's reaction to Plaid Cymru's appointment of a new chief executive.

All they were doing, an official said dismissively, was "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic."

I should make it clear that my dismay wasn't down to any political judgement.

I was concerned instead about a question of language. In particular I thought it was about time that the Titanic deckchairs saying was given a long holiday.


At the end of the day we need a level playing-field where we can tackle the cliché situation which has, quite literally, brought the English language to its knees

When it was fresh (probably some time in 1912) it was no doubt an arresting way of describing futile action in the face of a great disaster.

Now, though, it has descended into the repetitive world of cliché and makes you think of the way in which people are speaking rather than the message they bring.

Oh, not that old Titanic one again, you say to yourself.

At this point in time, though, those of us in the journalistic trade should stand up and be counted.

At the end of the day we need a level playing-field where we can tackle the cliché situation which has, quite literally, brought the English language to its knees.

It's probably a wild goose chase, I know, but, if I may be so bold, we should leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of the usual suspects.

Angus Deayton
Angus Deayton: Desribed as 'shamed'

It's not for nothing that this has been described as an accident waiting to happen.

In these circumstances it's not really surprising to learn that cliché is a word that comes from the printing trade.

It is a persistent temptation for journalists in particular, but many other people in public life too, to reach for the familiar and the obvious when hurrying to meet a deadline.

You may wince when you read the finished product but, to coin a phrase, that reaction is too little, too late.

Certain phrases come to attach themselves like... well, like glue, I suppose, to people and things.

Those involved in any kind of scandal are described as "shamed" - Angus Deayton and Stephen Byers this week, for example.

Companies facing difficulties, like Corus are always "troubled".

For many years it seemed impossible to mention the Llanwern steelworks in any context without attaching the adjective "giant" to it.

We don't do that now, of course, but neither have we switched to calling it "the medium-sized Llanwern steelworks."

There seems to be a process in all this in which phrases begin as fresh and interesting and gradually become stale before in some cases becoming the source of some kind of ironic humour.

The first man who said "sick as a parrot", for example, caught the public attention.

Eventually it was too tired and worn out to be of much use until people started saying it alongside "Over the moon, Brian" to show how in touch, amusing and sophisticated they were.

Others change their meaning entirely. A "curate's egg" is now used to describe a mixture of good and bad.

Bell the cat

But the original Punch cartoon from which it was taken was a joke about cringing servility.

Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones." Curate: "Oh no, My Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent."

The problem is not that the meaning of "curate's egg" has been altered but that, whatever it actually means it is now used too often.

What we need instead are some new clichés or, perhaps, the revival of some old ones.

I have on my shelves a dictionary of clichés (how sad, you might say) which contains any number of phrases that were once apparently commonplace but which have fallen out of use.

Who will have the nerve to take on this difficult task or, as they said all the time in the middle ages, who will bell the cat?

Patrick Hannan's weekly political programme, Called to Order, is live on Radio Wales, 93-104FM, 882 and 657AM, and DSat channel 867.

You can also listen to BBC Radio Wales live online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/live/rwv5.ram.

e-mail: order@bbc.co.uk

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