clichés should be avoided like the plague” (a sign on a news editor’s
desk) is presented by Pam Peters’ Cambridge Australian English Style
Guide (CAESG) as a nice oxymoronic example of “do as I say, not
as I do”. It echoes, doesn’t it, that unforgettably self-contradictory
exhortation of MGM’s Samuel Goldwyn, “Let’s have some new clichés”.
know what a cliché is — a phrase, once startlingly fresh
in its imagery, perhaps, but now predictably stale through
overuse. And that’s the intriguing thing. Despite its
tarnished image, each clichéd phrase was once brand
spanking, sparkling new, and its shine has worn off only
because it has become too successful.
Times critic Bernard Levin has nicely put it, “today’s striking
thought is tomorrow’s platitude, and next week’s cliché”.
some Bikwil readers will also be aware of the word’s derivation:
cliché means “stereotyped” in French, where it once referred to the
stereotyped block cast from an engraving, from which multiple copies could
be printed. Our clichés recast unique events in a standard mould. (CAESG)
Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1997
paperback ed. ISBN 0 521 59655 6) has this to say:
clichés we see fragments of language apparently dying, yet unable to die.
Clichés emerge when expressions outlive their usefulness as conveyors of
information. They are dying not from underuse, as with the gradual
disappearance of old-fashioned words . . . , but from overuse.
some valid everyday uses for clichés in speech, however. According to
Crystal’s wide-ranging book,
passing remarks as people recognize each other in the street but with no
time to stop, the selfconscious politeness of strangers on a train, the
forced interactions at cocktail parties, or the desperate platitudes which
follow a funeral: these are the kinds of occasion which give clichés their
right to be.
writers, as CAESG points out, they have some value:
are a particularly tempting resource if you have to write a lot in a short
time. For journalists it’s a way of life, and a crop of clichés can be
harvested from the pages of most daily papers, predictable phrases which
readers can skim over . . .
led you this far, I have to plead guilty to mixed feelings about clichés.
one hand, I share with countless other lovers of the English language no
desire to suffer again utterances that are as monotonously wearying as the
through the cracks
scale of 1 to 10
(measures/problems/ . . .)
the same time, clichés used with finesse in the right context have added
immeasurably to my life. That context is, it goes without saying, the
intentionally humorous one. When I’m in the mood, I can think of little
else as satisfying as experiencing a passage methodically piled high with
cliché atop cliché. This is especially the case when the text in question
has a mock-heroic intent.
notes the CAESG, “. . . [w]riters sometimes use clichés
deliberately as a way of parodying a style, and the parody itself controls
and limits their use”.
better parody of a certain style could there have ever been than Yes
(Prime) Minister? Its virtuoso scripts by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn
made it Her Majesty’s favourite TV programme — and Margaret Thatcher’s,
too, who in its heyday (and hers) commented, “Its closely observed
portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of
linguistic point of view, rather than the political, that show skilfully
satirised political/civil service jargon (mainly circumlocution from Sir
Humphrey) as well as throwing in many a mixed metaphor concoction (always
from Jim Hacker), and occasionally an appalling pun or a linguistic
pedanticism (“Thank you Bernard”).
from the episode entitled The Writing on the Wall:
Humphrey: Well Minister, if you asked me for a straight answer then I
shall say that, as far as we can see, looking at it by and large, taking
one time with another, in terms of the average of departments, then in the
final analysis it is probably true to say that, at the end of the day, in
general terms, you would find, that, not to put too fine a point on it,
there probably wasn't very much in it one way or the other, as far as one
can see, at this stage.
Hacker: Is that yes or no?
Humphrey: Yes and no.
Hacker: Suppose you weren't asked for a straight answer.
Humphrey: Oh, then I should play for time, Minister.
an author from a different place and time — Frank Sullivan, say? He was an
American humourist (1892-1976) who from the early 1930s was a long-time
staff member of The New Yorker. His perhaps most famous piece was
A Garland of Ibids, a witty parody of earnest academic writing
overloaded with footnotes.
more direct relevance here is his series of sharp yet somehow mellow
satirical interviews with Mr. Arbuthnot, an expert user of clichés. Each
of these discussions spoofs a particular vocation, such as literary
criticism, movie making (pace Sam Goldwyn), tabloid reporting of
crimes of passion and violence . . .
Cliché Expert Testifies on Literary Criticism begins this way:
Arbuthnot, you are an expert in the use of the cliché as applied to
A I am
told that I am, sir.
shall soon find out. What is this object, marked Exhibit A, which I hold?
A That is
What kind of book is it?
A It is a
minor American classic. Truly a prose epic.
what kind of document is it?
A It is a
valuable human document.
good, Mr. Arbuthnot. Please continue.
A It is a
book in which the results of painstaking — or scholarly — research are
embodied and it should interest all thoughtful readers. This reviewer
could not put it down.
of its penetrating insight into the ever-present problem of international
relationships. It is a sincere and moving study of an American family
against the background of a small college town, and it is also a vivid and
full-blooded portrayal of the life of that true child of nature, the
Q How is
A It is
written with sympathy, pathos, and kindly humor. It throws a clear light
on a little-understood subject and is well worth reading.
Q How is
Profusely. It is original in conception, devoid of sentimentality, highly
informative, consistently witty, and rich in color. Place it on your
never forget the great P.G Wodehouse, of whom in the cliché connection it
has been written that his quote marks around verbal banalities are
“invisible” — i.e. clichés aforethought.
needs a separate article (or more) to himself. Any takers?
might expect, there is some fascinating stuff relating to clichés to be
found on the Internet. If you want impress people with your taste for
classical erudition, for example, I suggest you visit a site called
Classics Teachers’ Page (http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/cliche.htm),
where you can pick up a handy selection of such phrases as
and so on (about 70 of them).
differently slanted Web site I like is that entitled Children’s Answers
to Clichés (http://www.nanceestar.com/KidsOnCliches.html).
This lists the answers a class of (U.S.) fourth-grade students gave when
asked to provide original endings to some famous sayings.
glance at these literal but entertaining approaches:
bird in the hand is . . .
stone . . .
bite the hand that . . .
therefore I . . .
lie down with the dogs . . .
stink in the morning)
the whole world laughs with you; Cry and . . .
To err is
human . . .
(to eat a
muskrat is not)
teach an old dog new . . .
wind up, just in case you want to explore the whole subject more
thoroughly, let me quickly recommend a diverse quartet of cliché-oriented
Nigel Rees’ The Joy of Clichés. This funny book from 1984 provides
“a complete user’s guide to clichés for every situation”, or at least for
every British situation:
. . .
step by step instructions offer advice on how best to employ them so that
you will soon be able to speak and write clichés like a native. Emulate
the masters of the art — top politicians, journalists, television
personalities, trade unionists and romantic novelists to name but a few.
Note how successful many cliché-users have become — the Queen, Arthur
Scargill, Barbara Cartland, William Whitelaw — they must know what they’re
two, let me warn you, take the opposing view to Rees — namely that there
is no fun whatsoever to be derived from using a cliché, only shame. Even
so, both offer some groovy examples of the cliché-monger’s art.
there’s Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Clichés. My edition is a
paperback of 1978, ISBN 0 7100 0049 9. It is a book “full of things better
left unsaid”, the publisher’s blurb informs us, “hackneyed phrases, idioms
battered into senselessness, infuriating Gallicisms, once-familiar
quotations and, longo intervallo, tags from the ancient classics”.
Thesaurus of Alternatives to Worn-Out Words and Phrases, by Robert
Hartwell Fiske (1998, ISBN 0 89879 601 6). “If our language seems languid,
it’s partly because our metaphors are moribund”, says Fiske, so his aim is
to help us avoid “reaching for the easy word or phrase rather than seeking
the most accurate, most vigorous one”.
book is Walter Redfern’s Clichés and Coinages (1989, ISBN 0 631
15691 7), sadly already out of print. While not as straightforward to read
as the others I’ve mentioned, Redfern’s scholarly and thorough
dissertation is well worth perusal. One of its strengths is its full
bibliography, which lists additional useful works (including many in
French) few of which I was aware of.
Crystal, Redfern sees clichés as both “Musak of the mind” and assisting
“social lubrication”. But however you regard them,
. . . [t]hey
are highly contagious, and there is no known immunity, except possibly
silence . . . and even that only conceals the infection.
there is a little booklet from 1983 issued by the then Australian
Broadcasting Commission. It’s not exclusively about clichés (far from it),
but Watch Your Language! (ISBN 0 642 97263 X) does open with a
lovely cliché-saturated passage which went to air as a purported news item
on the AM programme way back in 1971, on April Fool’s Day. I
commend it to you.
does all this leave us writers?
“resisting clichés takes mental energy”, as CAESG declares, the
implication has to be, I presume, that when our brain gets weary we should
give in and flaunt them.
brain’s been feeling tired for (p)ages . . .