Sunday, January 13, 2008


Poking the pig

On Friday’s All Things Considered, NPR kicked off the program with an item about Bank of America’s purchase of Countrywide Financial for $4 billion in stock (audio available here). Countrywide has been at the center of the subprime mortgage fiasco, and because of that, it’s going for a song; Bank of America is paying a bargain-basement price. There are definitely benefits to the purchase, and it’ll make BoA the largest mortgage holder in the country.

But there’s also a down side, considering the current position of Countrywide. Analyst Sean Egan says, early in the audio segment, that it’s showing losses “north of $20 billion.” Mr Egan adds, “It’s certainly not a good business deal, in my opinion. I think they’re buying a pig in a poke.”

Now, economics isn’t my long suit, so I can’t say too much about whether Mr Egan is right about the wisdom of the business deal. But I can say that calling it “a pig in a poke” is inapt.

A “poke” is a sack, and to “buy a pig in a poke” is to buy something without knowing what you’re really getting, without having examined it carefully — as buying what someone says is a pig in a sack, never opening the sack to check.

Bank of America knows exactly what it’s getting. Mr Egan might or night not agree with their analysis, and might question the wisdom of the purchase. But they’re going into it with their eyes open, with the sack opened and the contents fully examined.

That’s a problem with using clichés: they’re such familiar expressions that we often use them almost as a reflex, not really understanding what they mean and not thinking about an interesting way to say what we mean in our own words. It’s easy to pull out some overused expression — as I did, intentionally, a few times, earlier in this entry: “kicked off”, “going for a song”, “bargain-basement price”, “down side”, “long suit”. Perhaps you liked the result, but to me it seems a bit hackneyed. It doesn’t have my own voice.

One dictionary defines it this way:

A trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.
And that’s the crux of the matter: that even when they’re correctly used, clichés can give one’s writing a tired feel, making it lack originality. How many more times can we hear that someone is “cautiously optimistic”, that we’re “on a slippery slope”, or that it’s “a no-win situation”.

One that seems to have gone by the wayside, but was popular in the business world 30 years ago, is “the onus is on us” — an oh, so clever way to say that something is our responsibility, playing with the pairing of “onus” and “on us”. I remember wondering how many of the people around me were parroting the phrase without having seen it written and not understanding what was supposed to be clever about it.

Don’t drop the ball. Be imaginative, and write right.


Ray said...

"write right"? YUK! But I'm sure you worded it that way to be facetious. At least, I hope you did!

Barry Leiba said...


The Ridger, FCD said...

Don't make a mountain out of a molehill, Barry!