Are those crickets I hear, even under snow?

A phrase much in use lately to describe uncomfortable silences reminds us how idioms work best when they stay in touch with their origins.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 14, 2017.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made headlines a few weeks ago with his take on robots putting people out of work.

“I think we’re so far away from that that it’s not even on my radar screen,” he told his audience at an event in Washington sponsored by the digital news company Axios.

“I think it’s 50 or 100 more years.” Hmm, I wondered, will this episode generate headlines about “hearing crickets”? 

Have you noticed this particular buzz phrase? 

You hear crickets when you don’t hear anything else – in the perfect stillness of an evening. So to say that “people are hearing crickets” can be a way to describe the embarrassed or stunned silence that falls in a room in response to something someone does or says – telling a tasteless joke at a dinner party, for instance.

Mr. Mnuchin’s “50 or 100 more years” comment was met with flabbergasted silence from the people in the room, and shock on the part of Silicon Valley. 

Most people studying artificial intelligence think robots will be replacing people within just a few years. 

I did not, in fact, find the “crickets” idiom used in coverage of the Mnuchin comment, but other examples abound.

“Mention ethics in Idaho and you hear crickets” was the headline on an account of a state senator’s struggle to advance a reform proposal. 

A newspaper columnist in a Snow Belt city took issue with a state official’s reported treatment of a popular local priest. The columnist made clear he expected an apology from the governor, but none had come forth. 

“If it weren’t for the two feet of snow on the ground, you could hear the crickets,” the columnist wrote.

After Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa drew fire for saying, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” a Washington Post blog asked, “Why are we hearing crickets from the GOP on Steve King’s ugly Tweet?” 

But just to nitpick, idioms like the “crickets” work best when they stick closest to their origin. It’s not that one “hears crickets from” anyone after someone else’s boneheaded comment; it’s that one “hears crickets” because no one is saying anything at all.

I remember when I learned the idiom “to hit the nail on the head.” I was about 8, in the family car as we drove my father and a colleague to work. I made some comment the colleague found especially perceptive, at least from a child, and he turned to me and said, “You hit the nail on the head!” 

I’d never heard the expression before, but grasped his meaning immediately.

Metaphors by definition involve a transfer from one reality to another – from an outdoor scene to an auditorium in Washington, for instance. 

But a certain ratio must be maintained: Hammer strike is to nail as perceptive comment is to the issue under discussion. Maintain that ratio, and you’ll be able to hear the crickets – even with snow on the ground.

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