Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)

highways and byways

This is a true Ike and Tina pairing. Poor byways has so much to offer. But it's completely subjugated in its relationship.

Of all the times I've heard someone say "highways and byways," I've never once believed the "byways" carried any meaning for the speaker. It's like the person wanted to speak only of highways, but he just couldn't resist the urge to make more sounds come out of his mouth.

A byway, according to American Heritage online, is a "secluded, private, or obscure road." Good word, huh? Handy and powerful for a mystery author writing about a drifter or a romance writer describing a backseat tryst.

WorldNet's definition, "a side road little traveled," suggests all kinds of wonderful metaphors.

But no, byways (in my experience) is used not to convey meaning to a listener but to provide empty gratification to the speaker or writer.

I can understand why these two words hooked up. Were it not for its brain-numbing overuse, the phrase "highways and byways" would be useful and visual -- a comprehensive snapshot of the roads that might be traveled. But too many people have used it as white noise for too long. It's time these two split up.

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Debbie Diesen said...

Another pair I'd happily nominate for splitsville: "Blanket" and "Snow."

Debbie in snowy Michigan

June Casagrande said...

Wanna hear something hilarious?

As you were typing that, I was talking to a friend about our drive to Las Vegas on Friday and said, exact quote: "For miles on end, the Mojave was blanketed in snow."

Will you accept a plea of "It's not as cliche because I was talking about a desert"?

(Too funny!)

Joel said...

Idunno. Yeah, it is tired 'cause it's overused and maybe I wouldn't mind if it were retired, but I do tend to think of the byways whenever someone uses this expression, regardless of the speaker's consciousness (huh, that evokes some amusing possibilities--"the speaker's consciousness"). But that could just be me; I perceive (and, more likely, interpolate) layers of profundity in TV commercials. And, yeah, I also hear echoes of what's hidden in the etymology when I am quite sure the speaker is unaware that a word even has an origin.

As for snowy blankets, that usually doesn't feel like an apt description of the crystalized precipitation's subtle interactions with the landscape. So I'm with Debbie. No offense, June. Really, I don't know that I've seen much snow over the desert (where this seems a more likely phenomenon); pine trees, for instance, don't submit to snowy blankets.

June Casagrande said...

Wanna hear something funny? When you wrote that pine trees don't submit to snowy blankets, I had to mentally work on that. I could picture a layer of snow so thick it covered a pine tree.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is just one of many reasons why you shouldn't raise children in Florida. On the other hand, I did grow up with bugs so big no snow drift could bury them. Besides, they'd just use that "here comes a shoe" instinct and outrun the snow storm, anyway.


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