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Well-worn saying? 老生常谈

中国日报网 2022-04-12 13:58


Reader question:

Please explain this sentence, particularly “well-worn saying”: “This time it’s different” is a well-worn saying that usually ends up being wrong.

My comments:

A well-worn saying is something people always say, something they repeat, again and again.

It’s usually a proverb or a maxim, something passed on from generation to generation.


Any witty and especially true saying is a maxim.

In our example, “this time is different” is something that’s often repeated but unfortunately it’s often proven wrong. In the end, it’s probably not very different. In other words, the laws of nature and society apply to one and all, everybody alike. They don’t make exceptions just for you.

Still, I must add, “this time it’s different” is still something to adhere to. Exceptions are made every day, though they’re rare. Miracles do happen. So, don’t hold yourself back in face of difficulty or setback. Doing new things or doing old things in new ways is what being alive is all about.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s talk a little more about “well-worn” as an adjective.

A well-worn saying is clearly likened to a well-worn pair of shoes or other piece of clothing. A well-worn pair of shoes, of course, is a pair of shoes that literally looks shabby and torn – due to years and years wearing. A pair of old shoes with holes at the toes, for example, is definitely wear-worn.

By extension, a well-worn saying is something that’s said and repeated for generations.

On the one hand, a well-worn saying is time-tested and therefore true. On the other hand, a well-worn saying may sound old and stale, because you’ve listened to it so often.

In other words, a well-worn saying may be a cliche that does not sound so fresh.


Any tired old saying is a cliche. All that glitters isn’t gold, for instance.

All right, here are media examples of a “well-worn saying” or “well-worn story”:

1. They are, almost certainly, the most famous words ever written in any book about cycling:

Meyrueis, Lozere, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.

They are, of course, the opening words in Tim Krabbé’s The Rider, the cycling memoir masquerading as novel, originally published in the Netherlands in 1978. They perfectly set the tone for the book itself: laconic, filled with diary-like, banal observations, but then subtly exploding into terse kernels of truth, pathos, and caustic humor.

The Rider, which did not appear in English until 2002, has become a touchstone in cycling, passed like samizdat among a clandestine tribe. It wasn’t long after I set about trying to ride a bike seriously that I began to hear what sounded like a secret knock: “Have you read The Rider?”


Back at his apartment, I challenge the master to a few games of chess. Again I fall to a strategic blunder. “The queen can also go backwards,” he says, sighing, as he captures a key piece. There is a well-worn saying in chess, “the winner of the game is the person who makes the next-to-last-mistake.” I tell him it sounds like something from bike racing—like someone attacking too early on a big climb. Does he see a comparison? He wrinkles his face and makes a guttural “bah” noise that signals an oncoming blast of invective. “Once you start explaining things you degrade them. They’re only what they are in themselves.” Chess, he thunders, is “absolutely not a sign of intelligence!” It is not a metaphor. What makes it interesting are the discrete moves that can hardly be explained to people who do not play.

Similarly, the Krabbé of The Rider is always lamenting the inability of the outsider to comprehend the tactics, or motivations, of riders. Why risk a mass sprint for seventh place, he wonders—“how long before I run into someone who knows how good that was?” When a man watching the race shouts “Faster!” Krabbé responds with pity: “Probably thinks bicycle racing is about going fast.” A girl who shouts “Allez!” triggers a rant about how racing has become just another cliché. “Never will I be able to make it clear to her that I don’t race because I wanted to lose weight, because turning 30 horrified me, because I was dissatisfied with café life, because I wanted to write this book, or because of anything else at all,” he wrote. Why, then, does he do it? “Purely and simply because it’s road racing.”

That same fierce purity animates The Rider. “That’s what makes it a good book,” he says, pounding the table, “if I’m allowed to say that. It’s not an excuse for something else, it does not have a social background, it does not try to say anything about humanity. It’s just about a race.” The way Moby Dick was just about a whale.

- Think You Understand ‘The Rider’? Think Again, by Tom Vanderbilt, Bicycling.com, October 10, 2017.

2. More than most artists, Vincent van Gogh comes to us in an almost inside-out fashion. We are intimately familiar with aspects and events of his life, especially his late life, which we choose to think explain the frenzied and vibrant nature of his art. His early struggles with family members, his reverential devotion to his brother Theo, his poverty, alcoholism, fervid religious faith, desperate flight from Paris and surmised mental illness are all more familiar to us than many of the subjects of his paintings.

Indeed, for an artist who did so many portraits, we think we know more about van Gogh’s inner emotional state than we do about most of his subjects. When we look at the Mona Lisa or Girl with a Pearl Earring, we want to know even more than we can about the sitters for those portraits. When we see van Gogh’s portraits of his postman or his landlady, we want to know more about van Gogh. It should be no surprise that Julian Schnabel — himself a celebrated painter with an obvious admiration for van Gogh’s art — would revel in this, and his newest film, At Eternity’s Gate, is both a eulogy and a fan letter to the aspects of van Gogh that inspire such feverish devotion from his admirers.

The film focuses on the last two years or so of van Gogh’s life (though Schnabel is intentionally imprecise with the chronology): from the time he flees the constrictions of the Paris art world to the liberating sunlight of Arles, through his treatment at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, ending with his last months in Auvers-sur-Oise. The movie’s title is taken from one of van Gogh’s portraits from this period of an elderly and despairing patient at Saint-Rémy, a work currently at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands.

Appropriately, these years are the most productive of van Gogh’s career, and most of his iconic works come from this prolific and troubled period. These are also the years whose paintings cement the commonly accepted understanding of van Gogh as an unstable, mentally ill painter who could not imagine doing anything but painting and whose art was necessary to excise the fevered madness within him.

Schnabel probably knows better than to accept this cliched characterization without question, but his film does nothing to dispel it. It mostly does the opposite. van Gogh is easy to cinematize because his art practically begs for it and his anxiety and mental distress confirm what we all want to believe: that art is inspired by emotion and feeling and most good artists have some sort of close affinity with the ecstatic which allows them to translate human emotion to canvas in a relatively unmitigated way.

Madness and genius are linked in modern art largely because of van Gogh, and this is a linkage from which, for better or worse, Schnabel does not shy. As a result, his film is sometimes heavy-handed – every scene foreshadows a well-known painting; every peripheral character becomes a well-known portrait; every closeup of Vincent’s left ear is a tense portension of troubles to come. While this treatment may not be subtle, it does seem sincere.


After At Eternity’s Gate, many questions about Vincent van Gogh remain unanswered. Was he mentally ill or just nervous and misunderstood by the standards of the 1880s? Did he really kill himself or was he accidentally shot? Had he lived a few more years, would the realization of his fame have helped his psychic state? At Eternity’s Gate answers none of these. It does, however, tell a well-worn story about an artist famous not only for his painting, but perhaps even more, for his faith in painting. It does so with the intensity and incandescence of a director with a clear passion for van Gogh’s art and, more importantly, for van Gogh’s spirit – a compelling story, even if we’ve heard it before.

- ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is a well-worn story worth the retelling, LittleVillageMag.com, December 11, 2018.

3. With Virginia retaken by the Republicans, the stakes are extremely high for the 2022 midterm elections. As the black vote may be kingmaker, a wise GOP would change from within and make an offer to black voters they can’t refuse.

Back in 2008, while covering the ‘Obama election’ for the Mail on Sunday, I wound up in the small town of Woodbridge, Virginia at a John McCain rally as the GOP presidential hopeful battled to hold on to what was traditionally a red state.

Twenty-miles south of Washington DC, with just over half of its 4,000-odd population white, just under a quarter black and some 13% Hispanic, Woodbridge was a lot more diverse than the McCain shindig would have had a casual observer believe, given the sea of blonde-haired blue-eye supporters who hung on the Republican war hero’s every word. But, to bastardise a well-worn saying, never let the truth get in the way of a good political campaign. Even in the racial cauldron that is American politics, despite the homogeneity of your base, it pays to look like you have broad appeal. After all, no one wants to be seen to be racist.

Despite the Woodbridge rally’s demographics, what eventually wound up on TV and in the press was yours truly, along with a select bunch of characters straight out of Central Casting – the ethnically ambiguous wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet, the white guy in a boiler suit with a wrench, the cartoon lesbian couple, the Chicano family, the black retirees – prominently featured in the bleachers surrounding McCain, who ambled onto the stage to the Rocky theme tune. This telegenic ‘diversity and inclusion’ box-ticking exercise was of course designed to con the Kool-Aid-drinking masses at home into thinking, “McCain’s no Klan member: maybe we’re not all racist douche bags after all!” In the political shill game they call this racial makeover ‘detoxification’.

In truth, the estimated 4,000-5,000 supporters at the rally were a true representation of the old school GOP movement, i.e. 95% white. In the event, the ruse didn’t work. Barack Obama took the state – and the nation with it. Some might say that using race politics in such a stage-managed, cynical way is a craven abuse of the electorate’s trust. I’d say it’s just politics; and an achingly conservative form of it, too.

- Black Americans have a chance to decide the next election, RT.com, November 5, 2021.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣   编辑:丹妮)


So… cock-sure? 确信


Wider society? 全社会


Just saying? 说说而已


Deal breaker? 不能通融的条件


Pick them apart? 拆分


War of words? 口水战

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