For Journalists Who Love Clichés, Every Day is Groundhog Day

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 2 2012 8:17 AM

For Journalists Who Love Clichés, Every Day is Groundhog Day

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Official Groundhog Handler Bill Deeley holding Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day in 2005.

Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

It’s Groundhog Day all over again for newspaper reporters and columnists comparing the day’s events to the 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day.

While Slate readers recently declared the film to be the smartest rom-com of the past 25 years, journalists have a tendency to reference the movie less than intelligently. Saying that a repeated event is “like Groundhog Day” has become a cliché—and one that has been leached almost entirely of meaning.

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Such allusions have become so common that, in his column on the NBA this week, Bill Simmons made one without even using the movie’s name. Speaking of LeBron’s repeated failures in the clutch, he declared that “Miami should just hire Bill Murray, Chris Elliott and Andie MacDowell to sit on its bench.”

On the off-chance you’re less familiar with the film, Murray stars as a weatherman who experiences the same day over and over again until he learns to love (or something). For an event to truly resemble Groundhog Day, then, it should happen again and again, in more or less identical fashion, and ideally on consecutive days.

Typically, however, these are not the kinds of events reporters are describing when they drag out the Harold Ramis classic.

“Jeff Zimmerman’s recent baseball biography reads like a broken record, or in a more modern idiom, ‘Groundhog Day,’” wrote Murray Chass in the New York Times in 2005. Baseball writers seem particularly drawn to the analogy, perhaps because of the game’s near-daily recurrence when in season. Zimmerman’s frequent injuries, on the other hand, referenced here, were an annual, not a daily affair—much like Groundhog Day itself, perhaps, which occurs every February 2, but not much like the film.

This is a common problem: Many writers use the idiom to refer to annual occurrences, seemingly confusing the holiday itself with the film that bears its name. When you say that something “is like Groundhog Day,” however, the accepted meaning is “a situation in which events are or appear to be continually repeated” (dictionaries agree that this sense derives from the film). If something happens annually, you might as well say it’s like Presidents Day or Arbor Day or what have you.

We suspect, then, that the problem is not confusion, but writerly laziness (or too-tight deadlines; one or the other). Consider: You frequently find the term used (even in some of our better papers) to refer to something that not only doesn’t happen repeatedly but doesn’t even happen once a year.

Political journalists, even fonder of this cliché than baseball writers, are particularly guilty of this kind of misuse. Of course, some events in politics happen so often as to seem daily; continuing budget resolutions, for instance, elicit the analogy with Groundhog Day-esque regularity, and with some justification.

Presidential campaigns, on the other hand, don’t happen every day, however much that seems to be the case at the moment. So the primary results aren’t really “begging the question of whether 2012 will be Groundhog Day for [Ron] Paul” (even if you’re willing to grant “begging the question” its own new meaning).

At least this is Paul’s third presidential run, though. When the Washington Post declared that “Mitt Romney’s life is turning into a horrifying, nightmarish adaptation of Groundhog Day” because every “four years, like clockwork, he is forced to repeat 2008,” we began to wonder if the paper had not only confused the Bill Murray vehicle for the holiday but one February holiday for another (Leap Year’s, that is—which is not really a holiday, but does happen every four years, more or less like clockwork).

Once you start looking for these questionable uses of the analogy, you begin to spot them again and again and again (including here at Slate). It almost starts to feel like… nevermind.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.