As a copywriter, I sometimes geek out on the quirkiness of old phrases no longer relevant to today’s audiences. Dated sayings that come off as strange, offensive or even downright abusive such as “Spare the rod and spoil the child” or “In a coon’s age” have become relevant only to trivia games (the expression “in a coon’s age” dates to the early 1800s, and references the folk belief that raccoons are long-lived). Dinosaur expressions eventually dwindle in use to near extinction, replaced with completely new sayings — and probably not a minute too soon.
Can seemingly archaic sayings be rewritten or transformed so that they may move gracefully into the future?
I went down the internet’s rabbit hole in an optimistic quest for rewrites that make the cut. I discovered a few examples of reinvented, “upcycled” sayings that function in the same way their predecessors did, while sounding great. They even come off as humorous, knowing the original versions:
“Stop feeding a fed horse.”
“There’s more than one way to peel a potato.”
“Feed two birds with one scone.”
The source of the worthy overhauls above is an organization that holds dear the treatment of animals. When I think of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), lingual evolution doesn’t come to mind. But, way to go, PETA! Diving into the murky depths of the English language and taking artistic strides to move it into the future — that’s one of the less controversial moves the organization has made and a great way to further their cause.
When choosing how to communicate certain ideas, a tried-and-true expression can work to set a tone and make readers economically understand a point. A well-known metaphor or aphorism might instantly conjure up a set of ideas that would take a whole paragraph to communicate otherwise. But might it also convey things the writer does not mean to — will the message take on a feeling of being old-fashioned, out of touch or even purposely offensive? And will updated or slightly tweaked versions of archaic phrases work better, or simply move your copywriting into an uncanny valley that leaves readers feeling like they’re reading something that’s not quite right?
Worse yet, will an old expression be so foreign to part of your audience that you would have better luck shouting, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”? (If that makes absolutely no sense to you, then, well you’ve still gotten the point). This disconnect can go both ways, as each generation invents brand new sayings their parents don’t understand while also reexamining older expressions that people 50 years ago never bothered to question .
Our words and phrases reveal much about our culture and values, and they have the power to directly and indirectly usher in progress. Words that seem ingrained and traditional are always worth a second look.
Amanda Farrar is an account director and copywriter at Imagine Communications as well as a self-proclaimed word nerd.