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'Fresh phrases' from readers

In April, we invited Monitor readers to supply fresh phrases to replace such overused ones as "at the end of the day," "between a rock and a hard place," and "thinking outside the box." (See "Wanted: New turns of phrase," April 8, page 19.)

Alas, if our results are an indication, the truly fresh phrase is elusive, indeed. We have few discoveries to report. This may explain why English speakers have been using some of the same locutions for centuries.

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Readers did supply some glimmers of hope, however.

A few of you suggested recasting tired phrases alliteratively. "Come hell or high water" would thereby become "survive Satan or tsunami" (wrote Mary Jane Palmer of Warren, Mich.). We were shamelessly attracted to "As fine as New England's John Gould" (Daryl Northrop of Indianapolis). We also enjoyed the cleverness of Mr. Northrop's "Hearken to big Daddies and Baghdadis" - if only we could figure out what it meant.

Ned Gulbran of Seattle brightened our day by quoting old-time comedians Bob & Ray: "Hang by your thumbs and write if you get work." Now there's a phrase to make you sit up, take notice, and scratch your head.

Others suggested simply cutting down on verbiage and stop using more words where fewer will do: "as a matter of fact" might be better served by "because," suggested Vukani Nyirenda of Inglewood, Calif. "At this moment" could simply be "now."

Reader Julie Denison of New Canaan, Conn., sent us a more extensive exploration of idiomatic usage. She began by relating how some idioms far outlive their antecedents. You're probably familiar with the assertion "I'll be there with bells on," meaning "I'll be all dressed up and ready to go." But do you know that the "bells" are harness bells, a feature of the fanciest carriage-horse bridles?

We all know what "raining cats and dogs" means, but wait a minute: What could the cats and dogs possibly refer to? And if native speakers don't know, think how it must seem to nonnative speakers just learning the language.

"Let's get back, though," Ms. Denison concludes, "to the original calling in the April 8 Monitor, which invited readers to rewrite these phrases into more tolerable forms. Perhaps I'm not a shoo-in for the job. Instead of telling a friend we'll 'touch base' later, why don't we just tell him we'll 'hook up with him later'? Oops. OK, next time we want someone to 'bear with us,' let's just tell him to 'hang in there.' Darn. Well, if we're sure we've 'addressed the issue,' it probably means we've 'hit the nail on the head.' Sorry, guys, this may be hard to pull off. Or maybe this just isn't going to be as easy as we thought it would be. Definitely no piece of cake."

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Well. We're still interested. If you hear any fresh turns of phrase, please drop us a line. And many thanks to all of you who wrote in.

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