“The same images, with very little variation, have served all authors who have ever written,” claimed Samuel Johnson. This means we should be able to expect at least a little originality in sentences, right?
Maybe not. Here are three more writers' cliches that have had a longer, more storied history than they deserve:
“Everything Went Black”
The phrase had its heyday in early 20th century Boys' Life magazines, where a story wasn't a story without someone falling unconscious. For a few examples, in 1918: “I felt a stinging pain and everything went black”; 1919: “Dawson's grip tightened on Will's throat until everything went black”; 1920: “Something struck my head and all went black.”
The cliche evolved from magazine writing in the previous century, where it often related to fainting fits and sickness, such as in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1852: “A fit of sickness came over me. Everything turned dark”; or The Century, 1877: “A strange suffocating feeling came upon her; everything turned black before her eyes.”
While the phrase has numerous potential sources, the trope of a character blacking out at the end of a chapter can be traced to a possible originator. In Samuel Richardson's 1754 novel The History of Sir Charles Grandison, we find a typically melodramatic chapter ending when the heroine (kidnapped by a man whom she refuses to marry) is struck by a door: “My head swam; my eyes failed me; and I fainted quite away.”
“He Looked Deeply into Her Eyes”
One of the earliest instances of this stomach-churning line can be found in The Gentleman's Magazine, specifically it's 1884 serialised novel Philistia by Cecil Power: “He took her hand in his dreamily: and Hilda let him take it without movement. Then he looked deeply into her eyes, and felt a curious speechlessness coming over him, deep down in the ball of his throat.”
Before stumbling upon the phrase, Power attempts six alternate descriptions of the couple looking at one another: "Hilda looked at him straight (1) and said in her own frank unaffected fashion, 'So am I, Mr. Berkeley, very sorry, very sorry indeed.' Arthur looked back at her (2) once more, and their eyes met (3). His look was full of admiration (4), and Hilda saw it (5). She moved a little uneasily upon the ottoman, waiting apparently as though she expected Arthur to say something else. But Arthur looked at her long and steadfastly (6), and said nothing."
The notion of “gazing deeply” has earlier instances, but often when a character is engaged in thought rather than romance. “Looking deeply into her eyes” became pervasive in 1890s stage directions, including early translations of Ibsen, before migrating to movie scripts and popular magazines in the U.S., where the “ly” ending of the adverb is dropped in favour of “deep into his/her eyes.”
“You're Off the Case”
The most likely film inception of this phrase is in Lady in the Lake, a strange 1947 adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story shot almost entirely in first person:
"Well if you think I’m going to settle for a cheap detective you’re sadly mistaken. … You’re off the case. There isn’t any case any more. Now kindly haul yourself out of here and send me a bill for your failure. I never want to see you again."
In the 19th century, cops occasionally get suspended, but it's always the hero handing out the humiliation, as in Wilkie Collins' The Biter Bit: “'Have you come to help me?' says he. 'Not exactly,' says I. 'I've come to tell you that you are suspended till further notice.'”
It wasn't until the early 20th century that detectives concerned themselves with staying “on the case,” such as in the 1921 story The Black Star by Johnston McCulley: “We'll … have the police find you two there unconscious. Then let the public laugh! I fancy you’ll hear a howl go up for you to be ordered off the case.”
The blueprint of all subsequent police chief vs. righteous cop scenes seems to arrive in 1916, with The Master Detective by Percy James Brebner. The narrator explains:
They were very trying days for me, for the chief took me off the case when he had heard my story. He could not understand why I had not mentioned at once that I had been with the dead man on the previous night, and his manner suggested that my being the criminal was well within the bounds of possibility.
It's not hard to see why writers become fixated on the eyes of a romancing couple or pause adventures with a sudden lapse of consciousness or even capture cop dramas with an emblematic ass-handing ceremony. Tropes are the obvious choice, the tools at the top of the writer's toolbox. But while these origins show that lazy writing has a long history, it's perturbing that the frequency of old-fashioned cliches increases dramatically the closer we get to the present day.
Have any other cliches whose origins you’re curious about? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll try to get to the bottom of it. (Just don’t get into a fit and take us off the case.)
George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.
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