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2017-11-02 17:36
By Lee Hyon-soo



Native english speakers say “Bless you” when one sneezes. Also, those who speak english as a second language mimic them without knowing why. How did this custom come into being? Here is a plausible explanation. In the old days people thought that they sneezed out their souls and lurking demons were apt to enter the un-souled bodies before their souls could get back. And they believed that if anyone said “Bless you,” the demons would be frightened off. How interesting!

“Bless you” is short for “God bless you” which is in turn short for “May God bless you.” Phrases such as “Bless you” are cliches. 


english is suffused with cliches. Therefore, to be proficient in english, one needs to be familiar with cliches and know what they mean and where they come from.

What is a cliche? According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, a cliche is “a trite phrase or expression, also the idea expressed by it; a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation; something that has become overly familiar or commonplace.”

Here are some examples of english cliches (gleaned from various sources). You will note that none of the following phrases are new to you.

All Greek to me: Incomprehensible or unintelligible, as if spoken or written in a foreign language.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: You see what your mind is predisposed to see, and what you see is not necessarily evident to others.

Black sheep: Someone who stands unfavorably in a group, as in a family. Black sheep were traditionally disliked by shepherds because they were worth less than the standard white sheep. By the early 19th century the term was used to describe disfavored and misbehaving people.

Call a spade a spade: Speak plainly and to the point, saying exactly what you mean and using the simplest terms.

Can’t see the forest for the trees: Unable to grasp the broad meaning of a situation or the point of an argument because of an excessive attention to details.

Cast the first stone: Before condemning anyone who has done wrong, ask yourself whether your own conduct has been blameless.

Don’t put the cart before the horse: The horse pulls the cart, not the cart the horse. We should not get things back to front, but should deal with them in their right order.

easier said than done: It is easier to talk about doing a thing than it is to do it. It is easier to give advice than to put it into practice.

Pull strings: exert influence from behind or outside of the scene. It is what the puppeteer does to control the action of his docile characters.

The die is cast: An important decision has been made about the future and it is impossible to change it, even if things go wrong.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do: Follow the customs of the people you are visiting or living with.

A good many cliches are proverbs, but not all proverbs are cliches. The distinction between a proverb and a cliche is current use; if a proverb gets heavy duty in the language, it ranks as a cliche.

Cliches are often criticized as a sign of unoriginality and lazy thinking. And conventional wisdom has it that cliches are to be avoided in creative writing. That said, there is no denying that cliches are commonly used in everyday speech as well as in noncreative writing because they are very useful to get one’s point across. If used wisely, cliches can serve as the lubricant of language.


The writer is a retired international banker who lives in Toronto, Canada. His other writings are posted on his blog, http://blog.daum.net/tom_hslee.


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