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The Word

Enough humbug

Deck the halls with Christmas cliches

By Jan Freeman
December 19, 2010

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’Tis the season, all right — the season for stupid donations (said The Wall Street Journal last week), for snacking (USA Today), for political infighting (The Washington Post), for toys (The Houston Chronicle). And that means it’s also time for a purifying journalistic observance: the ritual renunciation of holiday cliches, starting with “ ’Tis the season.”

The idea of a ban isn’t new — copy editors have long instituted local embargoes on overused expressions, including “ ’tis the season” — but in the past decade, a more formal list has been spreading the (forbidden) words. Compiled by John McIntyre, an editor and language blogger at The Baltimore Sun, with contributions from readers and members of the American Copy Editors Society, the annual declaration urges editors to slam the door on Scrooge, “the white stuff,” and other seasonal plagues.

To some readers, this is itself an exercise in Scroogery. “Take the cliches out of Christmas?! You might as well sack the ‘jolly old elf’ himself,” retorted Rob Kyff of the Hartford Courant. At MetaFilter, comments on the memo were withering; Aquaman summed up the editors’ message as “Nobody should ever do anything that has already been done, ever.”

That does distill the essence of the cliche question. “ ’Tis the season” is out because “you cannot make this fresh” — but just how fresh should a holiday observance be? If originality were the goal, we wouldn’t be making Aunt Sally’s cornbread stuffing again, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and welcoming the New Year with the same old boring champagne. No, in language as in life, we want something old and something new, blended just to our taste. And tastes, inevitably, differ.

Me, I’d vote with the copy editors on ditching “yes, Virginia.” Journalists naturally like the 1897 story — big-hearted newspaper editor finds a spiritually uplifting way to assure an 8-year-old that Santa exists — but I suspect its memory is fading fast. Whoever wrote “Yes, Virginia, there is a chopsticks store” could not have read the Victorian original.

And sure, let’s abandon “Christmas came early” as shorthand for unexpected good fortune, and “Grinch steals” when thieves and vandals hit Christmas-themed targets. (The Oxford English Dictionary, however, now includes grinch, and there’s room in my heart for grinchy and grinchitude as well.) “White stuff” for snow? By all means, let’s leave it to the poor weather broadcasters, who need all the circumlocutions they can dream up — so much airtime, so little information!

Deep-six, by all means, those parody versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which are “even more tedious than the original,” the list accurately reports, and always metrically deficient, too. Also the annual feature on the cost of all those lords a-leaping and swans a-swimming, ridiculously billed as financial education by its propagator, PNC Bank. If ever a lover was indifferent to the cost of a gift, it’s the feudal lord who sent along all those milkmaids and geese. And it’s not even an eye-popping price tag: This year’s total is less than $24,000, spare change for the feudal lords of Wall Street.

But the list goes on: “Give Dickens a rest. No ghosts of anything past, present, or future. Delete bah and humbug from your working vocabulary. Treat Scrooge as you would the Grinch, by ignoring him. Leave little Tiny Tim alone, too.” I’m not convinced that Dickens is overworked — Scrooge aside — but I’d like to think these are still live allusions, not dead cliches. Dickens doesn’t want a rest; if he could visit the 21st century, he’d be hawking Tiny Tim key chains.

As for a ban on “ring out the old, ring in the new” — well, this is why I’m wary of banning phrases. Who has a problem with ringing out? It’s what church bells do, after all. If Shakespeare had written the line, we might like it better, but it was poor old Tennyson, whom we never quote nowadays. Maybe we should try it: “Ring out the false, ring in the true,” he says in the same poem. “Ring out the feud of rich and poor, ring in redress to all mankind.” Nothing dated about those sentiments.

The copy editors’ memo is not aimed at you and me, of course; we can ’tis and ’twas from here to Epiphany if we like. They merely think we’ll have a happier holiday season if we don’t see Jack Frost and roasting chestnuts on every page, and they’re probably right. But veteran editors can also become too cliche-aware. After years of exposure to journalistic prose, they’re bound to be tired of some phrases; it’s satisfying to put them on a blacklist and declare them dead and gone.

The reading public, though, isn’t forced to swallow every cliche on offer; the familiar phrases are just part of the seasonal scene, to be enjoyed or ignored according to taste. Moderation is wise, of course, whether you’re dishing out cliches or eggnog. But an editor who imagines that readers despise “ ’tis the season” is an editor who needs to get out more.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).