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Richard Nordquist

The Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché

By October 1, 2008

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For a revised version of this post, please go to The Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché.

Today's guest blogger is Brian O'Nolan, who from 1939 until his death in 1966 commanded a satiric weekly column for The Irish Times called "Cruiskeen Lawn." Under the pen name Myles na Gopaleen (sometimes na gCopaleen), he wrote fancifully in Irish, English, or Latin (depending on his mood) on matters related to life, literature, and--our favorite--language.

In several of those columns, O'Nolan presented "a unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing." Here then, as evidence of the "murder" of his "beloved English language," are excerpts from the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché.

  • Catechism of Cliché

    What is a bad thing worse than?

    What can one do with fierce resistance?
    Offer it.

    But if one puts fierce resistance, in what direction does one put it?

    In which hood is a person who expects money to fall out of the sky?
    Second child.

    If a thing is fraught, with what is it fraught?
    The gravest consequences.

    What does one sometimes have it on?
    The most unimpeachable authority.

    What is the only thing one can wax?

  • Yes, More of It

    What happens to blows at a council meeting?
    It looks as if they might be exchanged.

    What does pandemonium do?
    It breaks loose.

    Describe its subsequent dominion.
    It reigns.

    How are allegations dealt with?
    They are denied.

    Yes, but then you are weakening, Sir. Come now, how are they denied?

    What is the behaviour of a heated altercation?
    It follows.

    What happens to order?
    It is restored.

    Alternatively, in what does the meeting break up?

    What does the meeting do in disorder?
    Breaks up.

    In what direction does the meeting break in disorder?

    In what direction should I shut?

  • Dead English

    When things are few, what also are they?
    Far between.

    What are stocks of fuel doing when they are low?

    How low are they running?

    What does one do with a suggestion?
    One throws it out.

    For what does one throw a suggestion out?
    For what it may be worth.

    What else can be thrown out?
    A hint.

    In addition to hurling a hint on such lateral trajectory, what other not unviolent action can be taken with it?
    It can be dropped.

    What else is sometimes dropped?
    The subject.

"A cliché," said O'Nolan, "is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage. Thus it appears that clichés reflect somewhat the frequency of the same situations in life. If this be so, a sociological commentary could be compiled from these items of mortified language."

More Words About Words:

Image: Brian O'Nolan (1911-1966), who wrote the column "Cruiskeen Lawn" for The Irish Times under the pen name Myles na Gopaleen, and who wrote several highly regarded novels (including At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman) under the name Flann O'Brien. Selections from "Cruiskeen Lawn" have been collected in The Best of Myles, published by Dalkey Archive Press, 1999.


October 5, 2008 at 10:16 pm
(1) Peter says:

Lovely! I discovered “The Catechism of Cliche” on a recent trip to Ireland. I was pleased to find from my edition of “The Best of Myles” that S.J. Perelman was a fan. It’s easy to find links between the Myles columns on the one hand and Pererlman and his literary descendant Woody Allen on the other.
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

April 29, 2010 at 10:36 pm
(2) kevin denny says:

Myles was a genius. His journalism was superb, his novels At Swim Two Birds & The Third Policeman are highly original,very funny masterpieces.

March 28, 2011 at 3:05 pm
(3) Liam says:

I could never figure out how the likes of O’Nolan and Behan could be so good at literature when their brains was pickled by the Whisky, Guinness, etc.

April 1, 2011 at 9:35 pm
(4) Siobhan McHugh says:

Myles was a serious genius – what an intellect. When you’re THAT smart, you can afford to throw away a few million brain cells on the booze. Sad all the same that a man who gave us so many belly laughs should himself be so tortured. Shades of Spike Milligan, Lenny Bruce, Billy Connolly … seems you have to ride the demons to rise above the banal. I admire folk who take up the challenge and manage to channel their suffering into art. And in the end, though they did suffer, what a legacy – I’d prefer that any day to a non-tragic life of boring mediocrity. My father knew Myles in Dublin by the way. He (my father) had as many demons, but all he produced were turgid discussion papers for the Dept of Finance. Go Myles!

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