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Skillful Turns of Phrase

January 3, 2013 — 14 Comments

frank burnsEveryone loves an exquisite turn of phrase. Those of us who dabble in writing are particularly susceptible to their numinous power.

I’ve been doing some research on the Father Mulcahy character from M*A*S*H. William Christopher transformed the fictional character from a caricature of military chaplaincy, into a compassionate and respected representative of the Holy. During my research, I’ve been reviewing episodes of the series in which he was featured.

In “Alcoholics Unanimous,” which originally aired in 1974, Mulcahy has been tasked with delivering a lecture on temperance. In an interesting twist he wears full clerical garb and prepares what is essentially a sermon. Since the lecture is a “mandatory formation,” the mess tent (which doubles as the chapel) is filled to capacity.

Sitting in the front row are the hypocritical Majors Burns and Houlihan. (For those unfamiliar with the show, they constantly call for the most rigid of military standards, even as they are all the while breaking the military’s Uniform Code that prohibits adultery.) Major Houlihan’s nickname, in fact, is “Hotlips.”

In the aforementioned episode they have a delightful little exchange that illustrates through its witty banter the skill of the Hollywood writers at their best. As the hospital’s temporary commander, Burns has banned all alcohol and mandated attendance at the lecture. The tent is filled to its limits as Houlihan turns adoring towards her paramour and says:

Houlihan: Frank, what a turnout!

Burns: Lemmings must be directed to the sea.

Houlihan: You’re magic with a phrase!

It requires skill to create a well-crafted turn of phrase. Well, even a fool like Frank Burns can stumble across a clever phrase, but only a master can repeatedly coax them from their ethereal realms.

C.S. Lewis was just such a master. His works abound with profound and captivating language. And he recognized it in the works of others. In “Dante’s Similes,” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he wrote:

[Dante] is the most translatable of the poets—not, probably, that he entrusts less wealth than others to the music of the words and the nuance of the phrase but that he entrusts more than others to the “plain sense.”

In The Four Loves, Lewis reveals just how impoverished much of our language is . . . even when it relates to the most inspiring of matters. Describing the difference between carnal “love” and genuine love, he shows that even impoverished phrases can begin to grasp the truth behind the dynamics of affection and commitment.

We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present. This all good lovers know, though those who are not reflective or articulate must be able to express it only in a few conventional phrases about “taking the rough along with the smooth,” not “expecting too much,” having “a little common sense,” and the like. And all good Christian lovers know that this programme, modest as it sounds, will not be carried out except by humility, charity and divine grace; that it is indeed the whole Christian life seen from one particular angle.

Surely those who are more articulate can more expressively communicate our love for our spouse. Yet, even in so-called matters of the heart, we frequently utter phrases that are utterly mundane.

The History of the Phrase “Turn of Phrase”

One online dictionary uses these definitions:

a turn of phrase

1. a way of saying something “Significant other,” meaning “partner,” now that’s an interesting turn of phrase.

2. the ability to express yourself well She has a nice turn of phrase which should serve her well in journalism.

The Phrase Finder website provides excellent information about numerous phrases. And, in discussing this idiomatic phrase about phrases, they do not disappoint.

So, a phrase was a style of speaking or writing, and style meant beauty of expression. We can now interpret a fine “turn of phrase” as analogous to a skillfully crafted piece of wood turned on a lathe. John Dryden referred to the “turning” of words in this sense in The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 1693: “Had I time, I cou’d enlarge on the Beautiful Turns of Words and Thoughts; which are as requisite in this, as in Heroique Poetry.”

Check out their entire article about turns of phrase at the link above. And, may your own writing be filled with impressive verbal ballets, replete with inspiring leaps and unforgettable pirouettes.