September 20, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: cliches & double down

Posted in cliches, double down at 6:38 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Clichés

Can we talk a little about clichés? In reviewing grant proposals and manuscripts lately, I’ve been seeing an increasing use of clichéd language. I think that part of the problem is what started out as jargon (i.e., vocabulary specific to a particular profession or industry) has become a bit tired over time and has passed from jargon into cliché. I’m thinking about ‘gold standard,’ ‘silver bullet,’ and ‘paradigm shift.’ Part of the problem is not jargon at all but just words and phrases that have become trite and hackneyed through overuse. I am thinking about the currently popular ‘going forward,’  ‘double down’ which is discussed below in Tip 2, along with the venerable ‘beyond the scope of this….’ In fact (itself a cliché), we recently talked about a cliché in the wlut, when we had a discussion about the phrase, ‘to be honest’ ( and even more recently, when we talked about ‘growing the economy’ (

[NOTE: My use of ‘we’ in the above paragraph doesn’t mean that my ego is so big that I think of myself in the plural—I really do feel like I am talking with you when I write these things. Thus, our discussions.]

What’s wrong with clichés? They’re old hat (sorry—couldn’t resist). But that’s actually true. The words and phrases have lost their freshness and usually do not contribute to clarity and grace—definitely not grace. Note that I said ‘usually’ in the last sentence. That’s because sometimes, a cliché is a  useful device for describing something, and sometimes, it has another purpose (e.g., adding humor). So I won’t say to never use them, I am just saying to use them purposefully. Think about whether there is a better wording or  a stronger way to state something. Listen to the way it sounds: is there any life left? A cliché that deadens or detracts from your message is anathema.

In 2009, Wired Science, staff selected the five science writing clichés, they would most like to throw into a black hole. They included: ‘holy grail,’ ‘silver bullet,’ ‘shedding light,’ ‘paradigm shift,’ and ‘missing link.’ That’s a good group to avoid, but I would definitely add ‘gold standard[‘ and oh yes, ‘synergy’ to the mix.

Tip 2: Double down

A reader writes:

Can someone tell me what’s up with the rather sudden proliferation of the expression “double down”?  It was a mere annoyance when I started hearing it from politicians, but suddenly it’s in the New York Times, NPR – everywhere!  Whereas people used to “reiterate” or “emphasize” or “repeat” or “endorse“ or “step up their efforts” or “dig in their heels” – now they just “double down”.  I’m not sure why it annoys me so much – after all we’ve become accustomed to linguistic analogies from war and sports, so why not gambling?  I think what bothers me is that it’s used in a way that implies it has some precise meaning, whereas I think it’s practically meaningless in the ways it’s being used (other than in gambling of course, where it’s quite precise!).  Thank goodness I haven’t seen the expression yet in scholarly writing, but I fear it’s only a matter of time.  Thoughts?

I really hadn’t noticed the proliferation of the expression ‘double down,’ but after researching it a little, I find that the reader is correct: it is everywhere, and the meaning varies according to its usage. Very strange.

Let’s start at the beginning, ‘double down’ was originally something one did when playing blackjack. A player could double his or her bet and receive one (and only one) additional card. But it has come into play more recently by foreign dignitaries,

On the contrary they’re likely to double down on a series of failed and failing policies whose principal merit is that they allow politicians to seem tough. Tony Blair, ex-Prime Minister, UK 

By tech CEOs,

We’re going to double down on secrecy on products. But, on other things—supplier responsibility, environmental issues, etc.—Apple will be the most transparent company. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

By newspapers and journalists,

After moving its apparel office to New York in 2009 with great fanfare about fashion, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is packing up the operation and moving it back to its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, where it will double down on basics. Wall Street Journal

By presidents,

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced states to lay off thousands of teachers. Barak Obama, President USA

By other elected officials,

America needs to double-down our efforts and bring the Haitian people some semblance of security. Yvette Clark, Congresswoman, New York

And, yes, by NPR

Do We Really Want to ‘Double Down’ in Iraq? Mike Pesca, National Public Radio

While I was looking up quotes for ‘double down,’ I found a site,, that gave me this example of the use of double down.

With the Yankees and Twins deadlocked in a 4-4 struggle, A-Rod led off the top of the eleventh inning by lacing a double down the left-field line off Minnesota right-hander Kyle Lohse. Simon & Schuster, One Season

Well, it does say ‘double down’ after all.

The meaning of the term varies somewhat. The sentences all have a sense of increased commitment to something. The variable seems to be whether there is a notion of increased risk or increased reward associated with ‘doubling down.’

While it doesn’t annoy me hugely, the lack of precision of meaning would keep me from using the term. And I would loathe to see it in formal scientific writing.

But don’t despair reader. It is being used so much currently, that I expect it to slip away soon into the land of clichés, and we’ll hear about ‘double down’ less frequently.


1 Comment »

  1. Jeff said,

    So where do we draw the line between cliche and idiom? From what I have seen, idioms can be inprecise but add to the overall thought by providing color or imagery. In a sense, can’t cliche do the same thing? Sorry. Had to play devil’s advocate for a minute to ask the question… hey, there’s another one!

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