700 Years Old, and Still Hacking

Posted: Jan 02, 2006 9:08 AM

The adjective "hackneyed," according to etymologist Robert K. Barnhart, is rooted in a noun that dates from 1205. Just as "hack" still defines an overworked horse, so "hackneyed" identifies a phrase worn out in the harness of plodding minds. No hackneyed phrase is more jaded than this one: It remains to be seen.

Today's rant was set off by a lead editorial a few weeks ago in The New York Times. Mahmoud Abbas had just taken over as the new Palestine leader. He had promised to quell violence. The Times was skeptical: "Whether Mr. Abbas can deliver on this remains to be seen."

What a thought! What a smashingly original conclusion! Think of it! Mr. Abbas' response "remains to be seen." One never would have guessed.

If there is a more hackneyed phrase in the whole history of pronounced opinion, it has yet to be set in type. And in its good, gray, gummy editorials the Times has become notorious for riding this old horse to spasms of spavins. Random examples:

In Brazil last spring, gangsters were rampant in the Amazon state of Para. Could the government suppress their violence? Said the Times: "It remains to be seen."

In Washington in April, Republican leaders reluctantly agreed to hold debate on stem cell research. Did their agreement imply honest debate? "It remains to be seen."

Last year the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted limited privileges to a terrorist defendant. Would this suffice to satisfy his right to obtain witnesses? "It remains to be seen."

Would federal loan guarantees enable Delta Airlines to survive? "It remains to be seen." Will South Dakota's new rules on campaign finance work out in other states? "It remains to be seen." Last year Congress agreed upon a bill to protect health-care companies from claims based upon abortion. How would the measure work? You will never guess.

The ubiquitous RTBS has a thousand knock-kneed stablemates. The Washington Post complained in an editorial last year that developers in nearby Loudoun County "are having a field day." In another editorial, the Post commented that an assistant secretary of state had "taken umbrage" at criticisms of U.S. action in Haiti. A columnist in USA Today scoffed at the piddling settlement in the bankruptcy of WorldCom: "It's just a drop in the bucket." In The New York Times, a film critic remarked that in Hollywood, rich men who bed actresses are familiar figures. Indeed, they're "a dime a dozen."

A couple of years ago, a different critic at the Times reviewed "Thirteen," a suspense thriller: It suffered from "a psychological Achilles heel." Greek legends lend themselves to comfortable cliches. Even The New Yorker succumbs: The claim that jokes began with Homer "should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt." Umbrage! Tons of umbrage!

A correspondent for the stylish Economist reported upon a celebration in Cambridge, Mass., in support of gay marriage. Festivities continued "into the wee hours." That same brilliant idiom occurred to Time's Richard Schickel in an obituary tribute to playwright Arthur Miller. It seems that one night at his country home, Miller had a great idea for a play. "By the wee hours he had completed the first draft of 'Death of a Salesman.'" Is wee twee?

Very well. Today's redundant warning is: Beware the old cliches! They have been ridden to death. Let us vow to ride some new cliches instead.