It's true. During the latter part of WWII I was evacuated to cousins who lived in a hamlet near Newmarket. Very primitive, very rural. Across the lane (track) from us was a field of poppies. I and my younger cousins would play a game of our own invention to see who could go the furthest across this field without stepping on a poppy. No one got very far because we were too concentrated on seeing if any of the others were stepping on a poppy. I will not underline the analogy. Cliché is usually regarded as a pejorative term. We (writers) are usually admonished to avoid them like the plague. They suggest a sloppy, thoughtless approach to the craft of writing. Indeed, they suggest a touch or more of insincerity. We are saying something that has not come from us. Maybe we occasionally trip up trying too hard to avoid the poppies in the field. For a speaker they can be a useful device to gain thinking time and fluency, a moment to marshall his own thoughts or wrestle with a difficult idea before continuing. Still, there's no smoke without fire, and at best they give our writing - or speaking - something of a tired exterior.
The term cliché found common currency in the nineteenth century and was not much known until quite late on. It was in use before that as a term referring to a stereotype plate used in printing. In the days when type had to be set letter by letter by hand, it made sense to set commonly repeated phrases on a single lead slug. The analogy is easy enough to see. The word, in the sense in which we use it today, is exactly that - a stereotypical word or phrase that is simply trotted out without too much thought wherever and whenever the speaker or writer thinks it might fit - or thinks that its lack of fit will not be noticed. There were reasons for the word's non-appearance until so late on, one being that originality was not so much admired and sought after as it is today. Traditional schooling coached the pupils in remembering the sayings of the Classical poets and philosophers and encouraged them (the pupils) to store in their minds quotations from the Bible and from Shakespeare. The actual words of their classical models were what were prized. No one expected - or wanted - pupils, or writers for that matter - to come out with clever lines of their own. They copied the sayings of the greats, they kept them in mind and they used them whenever the opportunity arose. If their writing was to become admired, it would achieve that precisely because it was unoriginal.
Another reason for the encouragement of what we call cliché was that in the longer poetic works and plays stock phrases were used to achieve rhythm and were used mnemonically to assist performers to remember their lines. So on the basis of our current thinking on the subject one would have to say that Homer and others were sloppy thinkers who hadn't the wit or the inclination to do their own work for themselves. In actual fact Homer was following the conventions of his craft.
So what should we do? Throw the baby out with the bath water and avoid all clichés like the plague? Cherry pick the best and leave the rest to rot? Am I suggesting that there are two - or more - kinds of cliché? Well, maybe not different kinds, but what about different categories? There surely are clichés that are so over-used, are so much the worse for wear, that they bring a groan when they are heard, even if the groan is but a polite and silent one.
I would think that we all will have a collection of such clichés that we have encountered with such frequency that they long ago started to grate. Putting something on the back-burner, keeping a low profile, under the radar (though I must own up to using that one occasionally) are some of my pet hates. They are the trite clichés, the ones that lack a precise meaning in the contexts in which they are used. Some - can I suggest: the calm before the storm, food for thought and as a crow flies - might still be capable of meaningful use. It is precise meaning or the lack of it that seems to me to be the key to use.
There is another possible consideration: truthfulness. I have heard writers and would-be writers argue that true clichés are acceptable, but many are not true in themselves and they are the ones to be avoided. I am not persuaded by that argument. It does seem to me that some clichés ring true. Examples might be: Love is blind, If it aint broke don't mend it, Actions speak louder than words. Others seem meaningless; put it on the back burner, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, etc. Stephen Fry said: It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then, like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.
fills the sky above our heads
yet the day brightens.