Thursday, June 7, 2012

On Stopped Clocks

Clichés will strangle your writing, the writers are told. I agree. If you can say something in a new way, you’re worth reading. Of course, if you phrase it in a particularly catchy fashion, you may well create a new cliché, but that’s something the future can worry about. (Come on — you live in the present.) However, a cliché isn’t necessarily dead text, I have recently realized. My example?

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

I can remember learning this expression as a kid, and I’d never thought about it until just recently. I’d always just assumed it meant what I’d been taught it meant: That even someone with a habit of being wrong all the time will eventually end up being right, so you’d better listen to them anyway, just in case this time happens to be the one when they’re shockingly not wrong. I’m guessing this is the meaning most people are getting at when they tilt their head, wag their finger and admonish someone who’s completely discounted some dumbass who has consistently proven that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Just recently, however, I was confronted with a second interpretation. It’s less positive. Just as a stopped clock is almost always giving you the wrong time, it will occasionally get it right, entirely on accident. But that doesn’t mean that you should consider it a timepiece worth keeping around the house. Similarly, someone who’s always offering bad advice — “It feels like there’s going to be an earthquake today” or “You might get salmonella” or “Dump him! He seems like a murderer” or “The world is ending on October 22!” — could offer it every day for their entire lives and then, by sheer luck, turn out to be correct. But that doesn’t mean they knew what they were talking about.

The moral, I guess: Either listen to everyone or don’t listen to them ever, because they will either end up being right or never be right, depending on variables you have no control over.

No, fuck that. The moral is that clichés truly are awful.

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