Word of the Week – hairbrained

Writing guides warn against clichés, avoid them at all cost! They’re ubiquitous and it makes me wonder why we’re so attracted to them.

Especially the repetitive phrases: hale and hearty, trials and tribulations, vim and vigor. Maybe it’s the alliterative quality that rolls off the tongue. Many times, I notice the spillover from legal documents, determined to account for all eventualities. Consider, null and void, assault and battery.

I refuse to give up on all clichés in my stories. They’re amusing and it seems like the judicious use of a shopworn phrase will fit some characters’ voices in dialogue. I’m thinking of a veteran cop with a military background. I think he’ll use the term “cease and desist.”

What makes it a cliché? Experts mention staleness, triteness, and a sense that the phrase is devoid of a specific meaning. At the end of the day… What does the phrase mean? One consequence of overuse and lack of specificity is to invite misspellings. Hale and hearty, for example, (denoting good health, usually applied to older people) is sometimes rendered as “hale and hardy.” Take a look at Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

According to Webster, those kinds of mistakes from “spelling by ear” may evolve into standard usage. On the same page, Webster cites the word “hare-brained,” which has been misspelled as “hairbrained” so many times that Webster considers it an “established” variation. When you actually conjure up the mental image, “hare-brained” makes a little more sense.

But “hale and hardy” would too.