As unneeded further testimony to the lasting damage done by George Orwell's dishonest and stupid essay "Politics and the English language", with its pointless and unfollowable insistence that good writing must avoid all familiar phrases and word usages, Robert Fisk treated his readers in The Independent on August 9 to some ranting about his most hated clichés.
I supply below an exhaustive list of the alleged clichés about which he raved. All that is striking about them (for there is certainly nothing interesting or noteworthy about the choices made in his lexical hate list) is their utter arbitrariness and unreasoned character.
|roll||(used of tanks or military convoys)|
|core||(used attributively, as in core issues)|
|guns fall silent|
|clouds of war|
|pitted against each other|
|soften up||(used of what artillery does to targets)|
|spike of violence|
|Iraqi war veterans|
|trailing in the polls|
|fighting for [one's] political life|
|war of words|
|stand idly by|
|pointing the finger|
|dreaded||(of secret police)|
|elite special forces|
|scantily clad||(of showgirls)|
|load of old cobblers|
What on earth is the rationale for picking out these occasionally encountered words or word strings, selected from among millions, and expressing contempt for them? Fisk says, "On balance, I think we use clichés not because they are easy, but because they are a kind of addiction. We find it very difficult to give them up because they make life easier, less responsible, more synthetic, less real." This is just recycled Orwell. Using phrases that others have occasionally used deadens us, desensitizes us, dupes us into accepting political evil, etc. etc.
I think it's nonsense. No one writes without using at least some phrases that are encountered moderately frequently (that's why they are moderately frequent). No one could. There would be no point in doing so. And nothing picks out the phrases and word uses above as especially reprehensible. Fisk is just lashing out at random against words and phrases he happens to have noticed and thinks are too frequent. He has no information about whether they really are frequent, or more frequent than they used to be or should be.
Fisk has doubts about whether to use the last phrase in the list above, which he wants to use for "a lot of reporting" by other journalists. I think it's a perfectly fine British English idiom, just right for describing Fisk's column. And there is not much wrong with the other phrases he cites either. Watching phrase frequencies and trying to keep them low is not the path to good writing, but to nervous thesaurus use and pointless revision. You will probably write with adequate novelty if you have new thoughts to express. Clearly, on August 9, Fisk was not in that position.
Experience in various newspapers has shown that readers at large simply love to read and add to lexical hate lists. Hundreds and hundreds of comments can be amassed if you just tell readers you want to hear what currently fashionable phrases they hate. (Don't list yours in the comments below, or I'll throw up. Language Log couldn't care less which phrases you hate. Language Log encourages you to rant elsewhere about them: go out onto a balcony and yell hoarsely into the night.) I'm not interested in them. My point here is that listing a few arbitrarily chosen common collocations and snowclones is pretty pathetic as the whole content of a column. Especially when the claim that the words and phrases above have too high a frequency, or are too dead for continued use, has never been supported with evidence, and possibly couldn't be.
This isn't interesting critical writing about language; it's lazy op-ed slop (slop-ed, I think I might call it from now on), a good illustration of the lackluster quality of journalistic writing that Fisk wants to condemn.