The Australian Cliché Test Facility (ACTF) was set up in late 1975 after Mr. Walter Willingsworth of Fiefield Point claimed that he had, on several occasions, both led a horse to water and made it drink. This and a number of other claims involving a horse that Willingsworth had given to his daughter as a gift drew a great deal of concern from high up in Australia’s research and education communities that assertions previously held as fact may not have been wholly true. Always alert to deceptions that might mislead the Australian populace, the Federal government was quick to throw its weight behind the calls to set up a cliché test facility for the testing of clichés. It was hoped that the programme could later be extended to proverbs, rules of thumb, and perhaps (if funding was forthcoming), metaphors and similes.

First, the ACTF charter had to be drawn up. This process quickly validated the epigram “There’s no such thing as a committee decision,” but little else.

It was soon plain, however, that certain facts previously taken for granted should be quantified rather more rigorously than was presently the case. For example – what exactly is a bird in the hand worth? While on a relative scale it is the equivalent of two in a bush (which is in itself a dubious proposition), what absolute value can be placed on the aforementioned bird, if any? The many variables involved must be considered – what species are the birds? Are they the same or different? What species is the bush? Whose hand are we dealing with? We soon see that the given situation is really far too variable for any generalisation to be made, let alone one comparing the relative merits of the three birds.

With such contentious points lurking like landmines in our everyday conversation, the need for the ACTF soon became more acute. The RSPCA claimed that the phrase ‘crazy like a fox’ in no way implied that all foxes should be locked away in mental hospitals any more than all fish kept in barrels should be shot at.

What was needed was some established, unequivocal standard with which everyone could agree. This was eventually seen to be the main calling of the ACTF, and so by late 1977, the organisation and bureaucracy was in place, and the recruitment of experimental staff could begin.

By midway through the next year, the first results were beginning to trickle from the ACTF Bulletin into public life.

The first impact was on the phrase ‘like chalk and cheese’. Chemical and etymological studies had shown that chalk was not in fact the opposite of cheese. Both contain a fair proportion of calcium, for one thing, and for another they both begin with the letters ‘ch’.

A pamphlet was therefore released attempting to popularise the saying ‘like chalk and a 1978 Volvo 240’, but this failed to catch on. A deal of inertia was to be expected, but the utter indifference with which the conclusion was greeted was a great blow indeed to morale at the ACTF laboratories.

Nevertheless, they ploughed on, exploring the ramifications of the cliche ‘All’s fair in love and war’. This phase of the ACTF’s activities proved rather expensive, as they funded a small war in southern Chile to test the war half of the hypothesis. And in the end it all proved inconclusive, as all the researchers were either dead, seeking psychiatric help, or no longer on speaking terms. A number of the female research workers were pregnant, however, and this aided in the next ACTF project – the testing of the phrase ‘bouncing baby boy.’

In 1988, Melody Frips, an energetic young Medieval History graduate from the Colac Agricultural Science Institute, joined the ACTF and injected a new spirit of inquiry into the establishment.

Her first project was a close look at the commonly espoused principle ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’

It was soon found that, while the pen was superior in the communicational aspects of the test, in the armed combat section it was decidedly inferior. The results of this exploration were later applied to determining exactly what an arm and a leg were worth.

Frips soon became a prominent member of her department. She showed signs of a promising career, but slowly her projects became more and more dangerous. Her investigation into ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ comes to mind – although, unusually for an ACTF project, the inquiry did prove conclusive. Frips is presently serving seven concurrent life sentences as proof of this.

Since that controversy, the ACTF has kept a low profile, limiting itself to more minor projects like determining exactly which black stump is the black stump, and a number of experiments with lead balloons.

In the present economic climate, the ACTF is struggling for survival. We can only hope that it will continue to do so.


First published in The Journal of Irreproducible Results about 20 years ago.  I was much younger and more flippant then.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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