I like using them as crutches insofar as quotes and phrases and cliches all carry more meaning than the individual words do on their own. Actually, since most words mean more than one thing, I guess a phrase like, "Live long and prosper" could mean many things examined atomically ("live" means both happening in real time as well as the command form of "to live"; "long" is both a verb and an adjective, etc.) but the trees would not portray the forest of Mr. Spock, Star Trek, and all of the other cultural context inherent--and generally understood--in those words.
I like kicking those crutches out from under people, too. Puns and silly alliteration and other plays on words are fun for me and sometimes they're even funny for people to whom I'm communicating. Establishing and subsequently betraying expectations is, along with getting kicked in the groin, one of the bedrocks of comedy. I make no claim to be hilarious (at least not in this space, with Obama watching) but I know a bit about funny. I think. Maybe.
Phrases that we all know are like shortcuts. Part of their genius is that we don't need to think of why they mean what they mean. We don't need to dissect them to get to truth.
He's champing at the bit.
She's dressed to the nines.
Let's cut a rug.
You don't NEED to know it's "champing", rather than "chomping". You don't need to know wtf "the nines". You get it.
It's interesting, though, to sometimes examine a particular phrase and dissect it a bit. And I'm going to do that here with a phrase that's even more obvious than the four I listed above.
It's apples and oranges.
Simple, right? You can't compare them. Apples are one fruit, oranges are another. One is sweet with a skin you can eat and one is sweet/tart with a peel you need to, uh, peel.
They both grown on trees. You can drink juice made from each of them.
But they're apples and oranges.
Strictly speaking, you CAN substitute one for the other. You CAN prefer one over the other.
If we wanted to have things that you can't really do that with, it seems the phrase could be "It's like apples and a Nobel Prize" or "It's like Batman and oranges".
So, assuming we can substitute one for the other, it seems that the point is that one fruit offers something that the other either does not or does not in the same degree.
(Let's treat this as if consumers believe that more is always better, OK? I know some people don't LIKE things that are too sweet, but this is a thought experiment and fruit could be substituted for people, with the axes being, say, sense of humor and education level. Whatever.)
[graph: apple and orange on "Sweet" and "Tart" axes]
In this case, a consumer of fruit can decide which of the attributes they prefer. Each consumer might value the two benefits differently, and even at different time (think: impending scurvy), and so while "apples and oranges" is cliche for not being able to be compared, they are actually pretty good options for different people and/or at different times. Just because there's not a single final answer of which is better doesn't mean they can't be compared.
Compare that to, say, an apple and a super-apple. I just made the super-apple up, but imagine that it looked something like this:
[graph: apple and super-apple on "Sweet" and "Tart" axes]
Again, assuming "more is better", the super-apple is the superior choice for all people at all times. The super-apple renders the apple obsolete.
But there's no "apples and super-apples" cliche.
I thought up this rambling partially as a result of watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World the other night. It was the 124th time I've seen it (roughly), and the line that stuck with me this time was after the protagonist gets dumped for another guy and his friend said, "That's probably just because he's better than you."
Scott Pilgrim was the apple and he'd met a super-apple.
When I ponder the women that have chosen others over me, I wonder if they are oranges or if they are super-apples. I wonder if, whatever the woman saw in me they saw MORE of in the other guy, or if they simply saw other things that they preferred to my things.
Which would I prefer?
Why do I worry about it?
More importantly, why am I writing about it?
I guess I just don't have that much else to do.