Monday, November 24, 2008

"Proverbial"

Here's a quote from a review of Chinese Democracy (the album, not the political construct):

A million monkeys with their million proverbial typewriters would have taken far longer to create something as good as this.


It's not a bad line, but certainly not a genius line. With the possible exception of the book Crank, it's a line that could be applied to just about any piece of art.

What annoyed me about it is the use of the word "proverbial." I decided today that I hate that word. It's a big long bit of pretension that never adds anything to a conversation.

Here's why: you use that word to denote that the phrase you're referring to is not your own, but rather some well worn piece of wisdom. ("I looked around the discount whorehouse like the proverbial kid in the candy store.") But if that wisdom is so well-worn, why would you ever need to inform the audience about it? If they already know it then they know it's "proverbial." If they don't already know it, then the phrase isn't proverbial.

The only reason to use "proverbial" then is to come to terms with your own inner cliche monitor. Writers -- especially those poor MFA bastards -- have been told in countless books and seminars that cliched phrases are bad. "Make it new!" as Ezra Pound might say between anti-Semitic rants. Thus, when the need arises for a little cliche in their writing, they balk; who's going to kiss their ass at the Writer's Conference if they're using stuff like "raining cats and dogs" in their essays?

So they cover their ass with "proverbial." Because if you say "T-Pain celebrated his appearance on Saturday Night Live by making it rain proverbial cats and dogs all over the strippers at Scores", it somehow pardons the sin. It's a big pretentious band-aide of a word.

But here's the thing: so what if there's some cliche in your writing? Sometimes, for clarity's sake, it's the best way to write. Look at the line I quoted again: you get immediately what the writer was saying. If he had gone for something a little more original ("A million yaks shitting a million different indigestible AlphaBits...") it would have looked silly and the sentence would have been harder to parse.

So there. If you're a writer that happened to stumble upon this blog, take heart: a random blogger says it's okay to be cliche sometimes. Like Dumbo, it's okay to drop the proverbial feather.

1 comment:

Meg said...

Wow you got all that from reading a Guns N Roses review. Intresting.