Hoe the Fringe, and Toe the Road

As you know, Orwell in his famous essay advises writers not to use figurative expressions they’re used to seeing in print.  The advice is good, especially for writers, because writers usually have more time to think about what phrases to use, whereas speakers might be forgiven, or at least tolerated, for falling back on the familiar.  Nonetheless, even with relatively spontaneous, casual speech, some familiar phrases have lost their familiarity, so that they’ve become double-trouble: they’re cliches, but they’re disintegrating ones.

For example, I’ve heard talking TV heads speak of a “hard road to hoe.”  Maybe they’re not listening to what they’re saying (for that, they should be praised), or maybe they’re city-slickers, or both, but in a garden or at a farm, one hoes a row–or even more accurately, the space between rows of vegetables.  It’s to get rid of weed and to loosen the soil.

One occasionally also hears (but rarely reads) “tow the line” or “toe the line,” usually in reference to someone who is being a company person, doing what an organization or boss wants.  Most usage-experts assert that “toe the line” is the proper version, referring to putting ones toes on the line before a foot-race.  “Tow the line” probably suggests something like a tug-boat towing the line (and the barge that belongs to it).

But, obviously, because “row to hoe” and “toe the line” are double-trouble–aged and confusing–the prudent thing is to avoid them altogether in writing and speaking; and there’s also the problem of “hoe’s” being confused with the word that got Imus in trouble.

Two other phrases much in use that are likely to perturb are “fringe,” as in Far-Left [or Far-Right] fringe, which seems to be a favorite (in Far-Left form) of O’Reilly’s.   One rarely if ever learns precisely whom O’Reilly is referring to, but often he seems to be referring to the kind of “crowd” that might hang out around the Huffington Post–that is to say, the middle of the cloth, not the fringe.  And therein lies another problem: the image (if any) that comes to mind with “fringe.”  Often the fringe on the garment or blanket is attractively decorative.

“At the end of the day” similarly confuses, mainly because it’s virtually empty. “Day” doesn’t help us visualize anything helpful.  One might as well say “at the end of this process, the bill will probably pass”: dull, sure, but accurate–no fringes, lines, rows, roads, toes, tow-trucks, or days to cause clutter and muddle.

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