When Time Met Inclination

by Mary Jackson (August 2012)

You know you’re getting old when “Fancy a coffee?” just means “Fancy a coffee?” You know you’re getting even older when that’s all you want it to mean.

Time was when “Fancy a coffee?” meant … oh, you know what it meant. And you certainly know you’re getting old when you start a sentence with “Time was when….” Time was when you had no such inclination.

Without its “nudge nudge” raised eyebrow sexual frisson, is coffee significant? Signifiant, even? Of course it is, according to Jakob Norberg and Jürgen Habermas:

According to Habermas, bourgeois individuals are able to enter into novel kinds of relationships with one another in the coffeehouse because the links between family, civil society, and the state are restructured under capitalist conditions.


In Habermas's narrative, then, the success of the English coffeehouse as the primary organ of bourgeois political influence derives from its ability to portray itself as the site of a universal community. Those who in their free time gather in coffeehouses are integrated neither by power nor by economic interest, but by common sense. Yet this pretense is supported by restrictive admission policies: almost in passing, Habermas notes how the reputation of the coffeehouse as a space of sober rationality requires the exclusion of women. The coffeehouse remains a gendered space: humanity, it turns out, comprises coffee-drinking men.

Make mine hot and black.

A footnote to this piece suggests that coffee houses are not the quasi-monastic bastions of reason that Habermas implies:

In his study of the type of the intellectual, Lewis Coser writes that the English coffeehouse allowed for “daily intercourse across the cleavages of birth and rank and station”.

Not those cleavages again. Make mine a large one.

From cleavage to cliché, spot the cliché in the following piece by The Telegraph’s Alistair Osborne:

Another day, another set of apologising bankers.

Surely you remember when the only words any self-respecting banker knew were Dom Perignon, Ferrari or yacht. Not any more. Nowadays, sorry’s on repeat play.

There’s more than one, but the one that I've noticed recently not least because I’ve used it myself is “not any more”. I remember the days when an exam was hard to pass, when a book was made of paper, when England was England, when an Englishman's home was his castle, when God was in his Heaven and all was right with the world. Not any more.

Time was when I could write a post about the recent past without using the cliché “not any more”. Not any more.

“From cleavage to cliché” is a small step but a fell swoop. Does cleavage meet cliché? Time was when they were separate spheres. Not any more. Thanks to the overrated film When Harry Met Sally, we have been saddled for the last twenty years with the “When X Met Y”formula, overreaching itself to cover When the World and His Wife Met His Wife and the World.  I suppose Harry sounds a bit like Sally, but not enough. These days it's any Tom, Dick or Harry meeting any Joan, Jane or Sally. You've even got When Barack Met Michelle, which doesn't sound a bit like Harry or Sally, so what's the point?

Almost as irritating is the extension of the “from …. to ….” formula, correctly used in “from A to Z”, “from soup to nuts” and “from the sublime to the ridiculous”. The whole point of this expression is that “from” and “to” are at opposite ends; hence the tickle factor in Dorothy Parker's famous comment on how Katherine Hepburn's acting “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B”.

I suppose you can go from A to B in a car, but you shouldn't in a Mission Statement, as do G4S, the “International Security Solutions Group” which plummeted so spectacularly down its own learning curve over the London Olympics. They don't even go from A to B; rather G to D, or X to R. Their journeys are random and pointless:

  • From risk assessment to delivery, we work in partnership with governments, businesses and other organisations to provide integrated solutions to security challenges.
  • We protect rock stars and sports stars, people and property, including some of the world’s most important buildings and events.

Hang on a minute aren't you supposed to say “From rock stars to sports stars, from people to property, from buildings to events”? Back on track for the rest of it:

  • From advising on stadium building plans to crowd control and ensuring event tickets are not forged;
  • From delivering pay packets to ensuring ATMs have enough cash to meet your shopping needs;
  • From delivering cash to bank branches and retail outlets to managing the flow of cash for central banks and major retailers;
  • From ensuring travellers have a safe and pleasant experience in ports and airports around the world to secure detention and escorting of people who are not lawfully entitled to remain in a country;

When it comes to “Culture and Values”, G4S or should that be G2S? goes from bad to worse:

We are proud of our distinctive culture and strong values that are cascaded through the organisation. These values guide how we conduct our business and help to develop positive relationships with all stakeholders ….Each of our values has a senior executive ‘champion’ within the Group who is responsible for ensuring that it is embedded into the way G4S conducts its business throughout the world.

Here's hoping a champion stakeholder will embed his stake through the core of its values and watch the blood cascade.

A few years ago I might have been shocked, shocked to see such clichés proliferate. Time was when it seemed that everyone was “shocked, shocked”. Shocked, shocked that quiet, devout Muslims turned to terrorism. Shocked, shocked at the BBC bias against Israel. In New York, New York, they were probably so shocked, shocked that they were shocked, shocked, shocked, shocked.

Not any more. People seem to have got bored, bored saying it. Like slang and jargon, verbal tics come in waves, and then recede. As one goes another takes its place. “Shocked, shocked” has been replaced by “as….as it is”.

“As… as it is” is as old as it is respectable, but now it is becoming as mannered as it is clichéd. I am not sure if there is a rule about its usage, but common sense dictates that there should be a reason for using this construction rather than simple adjectives. The two words being grouped together should be similar but subtly different, or should be deliberate contrasts. “The day was as long as it was sunny” is an affectation. Why not simply say, “The day was long and sunny”? Not merely affected, but meaningless was a sentence I read today: “The data base is as complex as it is essential.” No it isn’t. Complex and essential do not move in the same circles. “The data base is complex, but it is essential,” would be better.

It gets worse. A textbook I reviewed recently introduced a topic by saying: “This topic is as difficult as it is necessary to understand.” Whoever wrote that is as green as he is cabbage-looking.

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New English Review is as poor as it is honest. Time was when honesty was rewarded. Not any more. From year to year, from hand to mouth, we struggle. From us to you, pleasure. From you to us, help? Please donate here when money met funny.

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