I quoted an oldtimer in this space recently describing the situation in Iraq these days as sadder than Dick’s hatband.
Alert Reader in North Little Rock has written to accuse both the oldtimer and me of gross ignorance in the proper use of cliches.
“Dick’s hatband wasn’t sad,” he writes. “It was tight. So the correct figure of speech is tight as Dick’s hatband. Please be more careful in your discourse.”
I had a couple of thoughts about that.
One was, the situation in Iraq these days is not tight, it’s sad, and it certainly would have made no sense for the oldtimer to have said that the situation in Iraq these days is tighter than Dick’s hatband. Sadder than a longtailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs might’ve worked a little better. But as cliches go, that one’s a little long-winded. There’s the old standby sadder than a cow peeing on a flat rock, but as effective conveyors of sadness it and the hatband end up in a tie, as far as I can see.
Slightly more apt but also with drawbacks would be sadder than the proverbial one-legged Native American in the ass-kicking contest. Or a red-haired stepchild. Or Adam’s off-ox.
My other thought was, I’m pretty sure the oldtimer was talking here about a different Dick. Either that, or it was another one of the same Dick’s hats. Or it was a different band — looser and heartbreaking — of the same or a different hat of the same or a different Dick.
Maybe a rattlesnake band on a Panama hat, or boater, belonging to Dick Armey or Dick Butkus or Dick Vitale, who really is one. Sad or tight either one would’ve worked, if not particularly well, in a simile referring to the black band on Dick Tracy’s signature yellow hat.
It wasn’t long into this hatband meditation before the question arose whether this line of thought was going to prove very productive. The McMahan Principle, cited here before, said it was a 50-50 proposition, as are all propositions. Either it would prove productive or it wouldn’t. Fifty percent it would lead somewhere; 50 percent it would dead-end in absurdity, like “The Bald Soprano” or “Blazing Saddles.”
I had a few other thoughts on the matter, too, before something actually worth thinking about came up.
One was, Dick’s hatband just wasn’t a very effective metaphor in the first place for conveying the quality of tightness. I’ve seen a lot of hatbands in my time, but I don’t think I was struck by the tightness of a single one of them. The only hatband quality that I can remember having been impressed by at all, in fact, was the quality of being sweat-stained.
The hat in that case would’ve been my Uncle Carney’s mouse-colored felt fedora, which he was never seen in public without over a span of four decades, perhaps five, back when most men wore hats most of the time, even during coitus and when they were exercising on the parallel bars, neither of which it is possible to imagine my Uncle Carney ever having done.
Dancers, golfers, Stalin’s successors, and private eyes wore their hats 24 hours a day, but it should be noted that the private eyes were a different kind of dick.
The original Dick of tight-hatband fame is said by the great cliche authority Dr. Ebenezer Brewer to have been Richard Cromwell, a pretender like his father Oliver to the English throne. That Dick was said to be so vain that even the oversized jeweled crown would barely fit on his swelled head, and thus the notion, originally a witticism, of the tight “hatband.”
But nobody remembers Richard Cromwell here in Century 21 — it’s getting hard enough for me to remember Richard Nixon, Richard Burton, or Little Richard, who’s not even dead yet — and an unmoored figure of speech soon morphs into an altered state, either that of nonsensical cliche (like coals to Newcastle) or mere reliquary perplexity (like your tonsils or appendix).
The oldtimer knows something about cliches and timeworn metaphors that has eluded Alert Reader. He knows that they aren’t a lazy way of thinking, they are a way to avoid thinking at all. They are a substitute for thinking. And the only redemption for them — the only hope for returning them to the service of their original purpose — is to mangle them. Tear them apart then put them back together in new configurations that haul an audience up, as Picasso did the elements of painted pictures. Dick’s hatband comes to life again when it’s tortured from a tight thing into a sad thing. It provokes rather than dulls by obliging the observer of it to ask: How could such a thing as a sad hatband be?
Nor do you have to do a whole lot of mangling to bring a worn-out metaphor back to life. Sheriff Tommy Robinson one time reinvigorated this same old chestnut we’ve been scrutinizing just by adding a single letter to it, describing an inebriated suspect in one of his investigations as having been “tighter than a dick’s hatband.”
Probably sadder than one too.