Popular Posts

Sunday 5 October 2008

The Cliché's Bad Press

A recent visit to Poet Hound's Poetry Tips set me thinking about clichés. The post was concerned with them and with catch phrases, the tip being: Why not use them in poems the way Andy Warhol used pop culture in his art? I decided to have a bit of fun with the idea, concentrating on clichés. The poem below was the result. I emphasise that it was just a bit of fun, (I spent no more than 15 minutes on it, possibly less, so it is definitely not Wordworthian), but it led to deeper thoughts, not profound, mind you, but deeper - thoughts which have led on to this post.

At the end of the day...

when all that is not rocket science has been said
and done, God will be the final cliché. Fact
of the matter is he is a God to die for, for his raft
of special measures for mankind has led
to millions going head to head to win their daily bread;
by millions more a too low profile kept;
and further millions rated last who had been least;
not to mention donkeys flogged who were long dead.
It's neither here nor there to say
that those who sing from another sheet
may live to sing another day,
may have the young and callow at their feet
or on the soul's back burner stoke
the fires without which is no smoke.

Until early in the nineteenth century, the word cliché meant a stencil or stereotype as in a printer's metal printing plate. The process was that papier-mâché or some such material would be used to produce a mould from a block of type. The plates would then be cast from the resulting mould. Towards the end of that century, however, cliché had begun to take on the critical meaning that we give it today.

Just so that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, a definition might be in order here. A cliché is an overused expression, a word or phrase that has lost its original power and meaning by being so overused. (Ideas, too, can become clichés, but I will come to those later.) Today, the word cliché usually refers to a word or phrase that has become annoying to a significant number of people, so over-used is it. This is apt to occur when it has become difficult to detect a specific meaning for it in a particular context. Also today the word is taken to indicate a certain sloppiness or laziness on the part of the author, perhaps even insincerity.

So where along the line did the word come to gather around it the pejorative associations that are now almost always ascribed to its use? For it was not always so. It is interesting to note that the modern meaning of the word dates almost exactly from the first stirrings of a general desire for originality. This is no coincidence. If we go back to classical times we find that writers like Virgil and Homer used expressions which in a modern writer we might denounce as clichés, and used them for a variety of purposes including the maintenance of the work's rhythms and as an aide-mémoire. Homer's Odyssey, for example, I have heard criticised for its repetative use of the phrase rosy-fingered dawn, but in fact Homer was writing within a well-accepted and established tradition. His readers back then would have seen nothing there about which to be critical. Neither should we forget that Shakespeare and the Bible are both rich sources of cliché, nor, indeed, that today's cliché was yesterday's powerful - and possibly original - phrase. Some will argue that the only reason a cliché is so called is because it has stood the test of time and is now what it always was: a good turn of phrase.

There is another valid use of cliché, which is in extempory speech where it may be used to give the speaker thinking time to mentally plan the next point or idea.

Even today, a good case can be made for certain uses of cliché in literature. The expression of irony, for example, this may involve the twisting of a cliché, thus: Never do today what you might put off until tomorrow. It might be useful to portray a character, maybe by putting a string of clichés into his mouth: You've let the grass grow under your feet, m'boy and now you are reaping what you have sown! tells us a great deal about the character. It might also help ro realise that a complete avoidance of all clichés is hardly a practical proposition.

So when does a cliché stop being a positive contribution to the work in question and become a thing to be avoided? I have already hinted at one answer, the one given by most people, I believe, in their response to a speech or a reading: it is a cliché of the kind to be avoided at all costs when it is irritating to its readers or listeners and/or when it appears to have no specific meaning in a particular context.

I also said earlier that cliché does not have to be a word or a phrase, and neither does it. All the arts have clichés of their own. Film for example, is heavily laden with them. Here's one: we see a pair of feet creeping across a dark screen. We cut to something shiny, reflecting the light. Cut. The something shiny has become a hunting knife. It is being held aloft in a gloved hand. The screen goes black. There is a scream. We see the knife again, now dripping blood.

Think of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and the clichés in that, from the shower and shower curtain, to Perkins's oedipal relationship with his mother... except that they were not cliches when he made the film. He was working creatively, but the film spawned a whole genre of clichéd films. (To my mind Psycho was not his best film, nowhere near as good as the earlier North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train.)

One of my all time best ten was cliched, though, but in my opinion rose magnificantly above them: High Noon and
Now here is a list of general clichés. You almost feel you ought to be able to buy them at the corner shop. Buy two, get one free.

  • Sunsets into which lovers walk and cowboys ride,

  • Escaping goodies and baddies who always make for the top floor from whence escape becomes more difficult

  • Good dying characters who would not be seen dead unless they were surrounded by friends

  • Good dying characters whose final words are always lucid and significant, if not philosophical

  • Good dying characters who nearly always close their eyes at the point of death

  • Good friends of the good, dead character on hand to close the eyes of those who do happen to die with them open. (The eyes always stay closed after such ministrations.)

  • Characters having nightmares who invariably sit bolt upright upon waking. (Unlike us in real life.)

  • Dogs who never fail to detect the baddies with their highly moral doggie sixth and seventh senses

Examples occurred to me faster than I could write them down, but I have probably given enough here. No doubt you could add scores of your own, for they are not difficult to come by. But here are a few I think work and work well as stereoypes, though you may not think well of them on moral or ethical grounds:-

  • The sinister lump on Richard III's back.

  • Captain Hook's evil prosthesis.

  • Captain Ahab's wooden leg.

  • Steinbeck's use of the moron to portay menace in his character of Lenny.

  • The stereotype of the Jew in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

But at the end of the day and bearing all things in mind, it remains the fact that that which causes us to frown heavily at the cliché is that which gave us the word in the first place: the desire for originality. All of which leaves one question still bugging me, a side issue perhaps, but germane to an extent: do we sometimes sacrifice too much in our quest for originality? I was left pondering the question again this morning after reading James Campbell's account of an interview with Derek Walcott in this morning's (04.10.08) Guardian. Walcott quotes Pasternak's remark that Great poets have no time to be original.


Jim Murdoch said...

The familiarity of the cliché can also be used as a jumping off point as in the title of Erma Bombeck's novel The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.

There is a nice site which you might want to check out: The Movie Clichés List. There's also a Film Sound Cliché site.

Good article, Dave.

hope said...

Jim, she had another one called, "If life is a bowl of cherries, why am I in the pits?" Mom made her children read the one entitled "Wait 'til you have children of your own". ;)

It's amazing how many cliches we use until someone has the foresight to put them in one place. That was an interesting and fun read. Thanks Dave!

One more for your movie list [before I check out Jim's link]
The dumb blonde who goes down the steps of a dark basement to check out a noise with an innocent, "I wonder what that is?" while everyone else in the neighborhood knows a murder/etc. is on the loose. :)

Rachel Fox said...

When I was a kid I used to hate those cliche phrases (beat about the bush. bird in the hand etc.). A friend and I used to list them and shriek with laughter every time we heard one (especially if it came from the mouth of a parent). How stupid...couldn't they think of anything original to say!

Now...I am growing to love them all - and the cornier the better! I like to play with then and twist them and see what I can do with them.

I went and read the Walcott interview online - very interesting.


Dave King said...

Thanks Jim,
Will certainly do that.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that - Like it!

Dave King said...


I understand that. It's like a forbidden territory, and then suddenly you're grown up and you can go there.

Andy Sewina said...

Hi Dave, I was just this minute writing a piece entitled 'Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.' maybe I'll think of something else..

S. A. Hart said...

Interesting post. I wasn't aware of the history of the word "cliche". As always, swinging by your blog is a pleasure.

Art Durkee said...

Remember, a penny saved is worth two in the bush.

I agree with many of your points. Your point about the subversion of clichés is true, I think. And that's about the only way a cliché can have any new life breathed into it, is by subversion.

The real reason clichés are problematic in literature is that they are signs that stand in for real things. They're hollow, they pack no force. They're place-holders with no real presence. Signs stand in for a feeling or a situation, rather than evoking it in the reader; they are the opposite of experiential feeling in literature, they are bookmarks for actual experiences. They are disembodied.

The question of originality is complex, but it is not only about avoiding clichés, or thinking up new ways to describe things. Originality is also about seeing the world from a new and unexpected perspective, a new viewpoint that gives life, that makes us sit up and pay attention, and actually feel something. Again, clichés cannot do that, they're the opposite.

Clichés are also very safe, precisely because they're familiar. Clichés are lazy because the writer assumes that the reader will get it. Clichés are non-threatening. Everything thinks they know what is meant. That's why using a cliché is lazy. Writing isn't supposed to be lazy, or easy, if it's to have any depth or resonance. Being lazy about writing by using stock phrases and other forms of cliché is really no excuse. It's not that difficult to come at things from a fresh perspective, it just takes a little more effort.

If you take Pasternak's quote to be literal about this topic, think again. Pasternak was referring to the great themes of writing—life, love, death, and the great topics—all of which are as old and familiar as humanity itself. He was basically saying, if you're trying to be original all the time, you will get stuck in mannerism. Being avant-garde just for the sake of being avant-garde was what he was rejecting.

Think of it this way: great poems are resonant, and deep, and are often on the familiar themes of shared human experience—again, love, death, etc. And what makes a great poem great is that it gives us a resonant shared experience that we can embrace and realize is our own, not just the poet's, but something much more universal—and the poem has done it without resorting to laziness, using signs to stand in for real feelings, or other kinds of sloppy writing. Great poems often are shocking in their freshness and accuracy and imagery, even centuries after their composition. They continue to surprise. One thing a cliché can never do is surprise.

Dave King said...

Sweet Talking Guy
Thanks for dropping by - but please don't change it on my account. I wouldn't!

Dave King said...

S. A. Hart.

You say the nicest things! Seriously, though, thanks for visiting and for the feedback.

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

There is absolutely nothing in your comments with which I would disagree. I wouldn't want it to be thought that I was advocating the use of cliches. In poetry it is certainly difficult to see a place for them, but in some walks of life it is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid them altogether.

Art Durkee said...

Dave, I'd be interested if you or someone else COULD come up with a list of good reasons TO use clichés in writing. I mean, other than the subverting ways we've discussed already. I'd be interested in the thinking behind such a list. I've seen some attempts, but so far they all reduce to laziness and ineptitude.

I love Jim's link to that list of movie clichés. The most irritating one on that list, for me, has always been the redtail hawk scream whenever we're outdoors having a dramatic moment in the West. That just gets irritating. At least record a NEW hawk screech!

Glenn Ingersoll said...

It seems to me there is no way we can avoid cliches, really. The best strategy, then, is to use them consciously. If the bird in the hand is worth something, then feel the poke of its feathers, the thrum of its heart, or whatever. Do something, something, something to return the cliche to life from its living death as a thoughtless bit of language that clicks easily into place.

Advice I don't need to give you as you did that repeatedly in your poem. Teasing a cliche is a good way to lighten a verse.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting post, Dave. Great poets may not have time to be original but the way in which they position the words can make all the difference. I read in The Times the other day that Wordsworth originally wrote the first line of Daffodils as "I wandered like a lonely cloud." That brings me to another cliche point - at what point does "a host of golden daffodils" when repeated every year when one sees a field full of daffodils become a cliche?
(Is there an acute sign on the keyboard - it is so irritating to type cliche without it, but can't find it)

Ken Armstrong said...

Avoid cliches like the plague! :)

My favorite/least favorite movie cliche is when the hero lifts the little hatch in the ceiling of the lift and thus accesses the working innards of the building. Lifts just don't have hatches like that.

Conda Douglas said...

Interesting, informative and fun post as always, Dave.

One thing I recalled from a long ago linguistics class about cliches is that they are a type of language shorthand and part of the process of the ever-changing language. Lassie, for example, is a shorthand for the last of your cliche list!

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

I don't think it would be possible or desirable to come up with a list of reasons to use cliches. As I said, I wasn't advocating it, just pointing out that it may not be possible to avoid them altogether and - as Glenn interestingly points ouit - so why not be aware and not afraid of them?

Dave King said...

An interesting response, thanks for that. I like the idea of cliche resuscitation - mobilise the crash team!

Dave King said...

Weaver of Grass

As with: at what point does a newly-minted graphic phrase become a cliche?

There is no acute sign on my keyboard. There are codes you can put in, and word=processor packages usually allow you to insert them, but I normally put the word in Google, and copy it, complete with accent, to the clip board.

Dave King said...

I go all the way with you on that one!

Dave King said...


Yes, I take the point, but had not thought of that as cliche before.

Anonymous said...

I recall having to learn clichés like 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush' in my post-war primary school days. I think I may be guilty of stressing too much over being original. Some people's speech is 'riddled with' cliché so is definitely a valid way of depicting a character and, as you say, originality didn't bother Shakespeare, particularly when it came to material.

To your list of cliché in film, I'd like to add the use of weather e.g. the flash of lightening and roll of thunder as a portent of evil or ills to come.

Dave King said...


I think you perhaps cannot stress originality too much, but maybe you can be focussed too much on avoiding the unimaginative. Maybe its more a question of a positive rather than a negative attitude, saying what is in you to say rather than being hell-bent to be original at all costs.

The weather is certainly a good example of cliche.

Thanks for that.

Bee said...

So much "food for thought" here! (I particularly liked learning the origins of the word.)

It is interesting to note the "tipping point" between fresh, memorably worded observation and tired, hackneyed shortcut. I remember reading an article some years ago about Shakespeare's use of "sea change" . . . and then I started noticing it all over the place.

I must read that Derek Walcott interview. The headline intrigued me . . . and it is still in my to-read pile on the kitchen table.

Dave King said...


Agreed: there is no substitute for fresh observation.

The Derel Walcott interview will not disappoint, I am sure.

Thanks for the feedback.

Anonymous said...

There's a wealth of cliché arising from school. Poor beleaguered teachers who took up the profession to bring enlightenment and a passion for learning into the lives of the young having to fall back on the worn-out phrase. "The bell is a signal to me, not to you", "Is your name Sheila, Andrew? The question wasn't for you", "With just a little more effort, he could begin to fulfill his potential", "Move your bodies, not your tongues", "I make the jokes around here, Barbara Smith", "When I want your advice, Graham, I shall ask for it", "Open defiance! A clip around the ear would have sorted that out once upon a time". Oh, how I miss them...

Bee said...

I just thought of a really annoying one: "across the Pond." Who thought of this one, and why do some many journalists use it? It is cutesy, corny -- and inaccurate.

Dave King said...


So true, so true, so sadly true!

Dave King said...

As to who thought of it, pass! But I agree with your assessment of it.

Lucy said...

Or in the films when people nearly fall to their deaths but hang on by their fingernails until someone rescues them by grabbing the other hand, and they keep nearly falling and sometimes they do... I'm sure it's not physically possible to hang on in that way.

Great post, as ever, which is something of a blogging cliche, but I often run out of original comments! And I enjoyed the cliche poem.

(Weaver of Grass - character map in system tools does all the accents but its unconscionably slow...)

Ellumbra said...

é - I can get the accent by holding Crtl & Alt while typing the "e" in place.
Bút ít wóúld bécómé clíchéd íf I úséd ít tóó óftén.

Dave King said...

I remember Saturday mornings at the flicks. The film always ended with the hero hanging on by his fingertips. We had to go back the next week to find out what would happen!

McGuire said...

'At the end of the day...it's night time'

I have just finished reading your cliche' poem and I thought it was masterly. A great disection of religious belief and of belief in God.

Your poem provokes a great conundrum for me, a least linguistically, for the literal 'expression of belief in God' is almost always expressed as a 'cliche'. 'Have faith' 'God only knows' 'God works in mysteries ways' 'Pray and Hope'.

Very interesting, God itself, reduced to a cliche' due to an imperfect and over used language )in this case english) and a lack of imagination on the part of the believer to express things 'differently' 'clearly.'

Very interesting poem Dave. Glad I read it.

Anonymous said...

The Weaver of Grass (and by implication The Times which she reports) was misinformed about Wordsworth's first line from Daffodils. It was his wife Mary who wrote out the first line incorrectly for the printer, crossed it out and started again. Not William. It's visible on a BL postcard.