People and words

The colt bolts

There’s an aspect that has been overlooked in the reactions to Dominic Cummings’ 2020 blog “‘Two hands are a lot’ — we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos …” The Special Adviser to the Prime Minister uses tired language.

Cummings employs phrases such as “low hanging fruit”, “truly awesome”, “absolutely cutting edge”, “wild cards” and “see what bounces back”. This is tired language – figures of speech that once rang in our ears but are now cracked through overuse.


We all use clichés when we speak, but they’re best avoided when you’re writing to appeal to your readers, notably in copywriting.

Why avoid such phrases? Simply because many readers will recognise them for what they are, as George Orwell noted in Why I Write (1946): dying metaphors, pretentious diction and meaningless words.

And their appearance puts the reader to sleep. Or while yawning, your reader quickly decides there’s nothing new, skips to the next full stop and misses what you have to say.

Better still

In my experience, to get people’s attention, deepen their interest and help them develop their thoughts, it’s better to keep it simple or invent a new metaphor that conjures up a vibrant image.

For example, instead of “fresh as a daisy” (used since 1780), write “healthy and full of energy” (what it means).

Or use your imagination, as Emily Flake did in 2018 when she wrote in The New Yorker about Jubilee Street being performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: “the song bolts out from under him like a half-broken colt and explodes.”

By the way, Flake’s words may well have been intended as an inventive adaptation of The Colt Bolts, the title of a composition by Bad Seed Warren Ellis from 2015, which you can hear in the film Mustang.

The photo in this post, like most pictures on my website, is by Norma Braber-McKinney.