Tuesday, February 25, 2014


It is admittedly later in the day than I am accustomed to writing the little pieces I post in this webspace.  The obvious reason for the delay is the correct one; my people are more important than my offhanded work.

To the discussion: While I was talking with my wife this morning, she made the (somewhat cliché) comment that "the squeaky wheel gets the oil."  Because I disapprove of clichés generally and think about them often, both in my capacity as a teacher of students and in my capacity as a scholar of language, I decided to follow up on the idea the aphorism encapsulates, that the loudest complaint receives redress fastest.

One response that came to mind as I was talking with my wife was the (equally cliché, for which I apologize) note that "the nail that sticks out gets pounded first."  That is to say, of course, that the prominent is singled out for reprisal.  Another, similar response is that the squeaking wheel gets replaced rather than oiled, with yet another being that the squeaky wheel may well get the whole unit discarded and replaced.  In each, the result of complaint is not so much that the complaint is redressed but that the complainer is removed.  The one with a grievance is dismissed; the protestor is arrested and that which is protested remains in place.  The problem endures.

It is, admittedly, not a happy line of thought.  Yet it is one that is too frequently in accord with observable reality.  While it does happen that loud complaints annoy those in power enough that some change is effected, it happens only rarely and only partially.  Far more likely is it that those who call attention to problems are perceived as being the problem of causing the problem, and that their identifying what is wrong serves to identify them as being what is wrong, thus in need of excision from the body of whatever group has the problem.  That there are such things as the Whistleblower Protection Programs bespeaks the prevalence of the behavior; there would not be a structure in place to prevent a thing if it were not seen as happening, and the structure would not be so large were the thing not itself extensive.

It is perhaps a thing I can bring to my students, the idea that informs this piece.  I abjure clichés in student writing, pushing my students to find newer and better ways to put their ideas--and to find better ideas to try to put into words.  One of the ways I do so is to point out the inaccuracies in many such phrasings.  Another is to point out the likely unintended connotations (and denotations!) of the phrases, such as here.  Frequently, the blithe use of clichés and their close companions among the trite, deployed in an attempt to "sound good," ends up making the writing mean something that the writer does not want to have it mean; there is always such a danger (the meanings of words change, among other things), but the inattention that typifies cliché usage increases that danger substantially--and needlessly.

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