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Saturday 17 April 2010

I know it's a cliché, but...

... I know where you're coming from! Strictly speaking, I suppose I should avoid them like the plague. Still, at the end of the day, after all's said and done, the name of the game, even the bottom line, is that they are everywhere, you can't turn round without falling over one.

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.

Haiku   #118

 Volcanic ash
fills the sky above our heads
yet the day brightens.


simply me said...

love the haiku ...will be back to read the whole post :)

Jinksy said...

Trust Stephen Fry to wrap things up nicely...like today's haiku.

@ctors Business said...

Good grief I'd never really thought about the cliche, beyond the mere fact of it being labeled a cliche. Will have to read this again.
Haiku - perhaps every volcanic cloud does have a silver lining

Tabor said...

I am such a lazy writer and I needed this reminder to avoid using cliches. I thank you for this analysis. It is like a mini-writing class which is certainly something I need. I am always searching for that succinct word or phrase which paints so accurately the feeling or idea I want to convey but my limited abilities make me grasp whatever floats across the top of my brain and I write on. Is that a cliche?

Friko said...

I too dislike cliches, but use some of them frequently.
Roughly along the lines you mention. I would even hazard a guess that some cliches cannot be bettered when trying to express exactly what I mean, you know?

Actually, I quite like using quotations, and would be loath to lump them in with the rest of lazy language.

Karen said...

I suppose you're right about cliches, after all, where there's smoke, there's fire! ;-)

Love the haiku.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

I hesitate to comment for fear of incriminating myself but I love your post for being both entertaining and constructive. The haiku is great too; strange but true.

Dan Gurney said...

It's interesting to me that the list of clichés that grate on your nerves is so different from mine. For me, clichés are most displeasing when they clash conceptually or sensorily with the thought they're meant to fill in for.

I would love to hear what you might have to say about emoticons.

Shadow said...

very interesting write!

Helen said...

Your haiku is wonderfully composed.

Cliches ~~ During the last months of my mother's life she (though quite demented and medicated) said 'beauty is as beauty does' a cliche I had heard from the time I was a little girl. Burned into my subconscious ... what an impact it had then, and still does.

DUTA said...

I have an 80 years old relative, an engineer who has also written
articles on various topics in newspapers.
I dislike his style and I've even told him so. He uses lots of quotations and cliche sayings. Why do you use all this I said. you've got a vast life experience and culture, you can be original, you don't need all this.
Well, he said he's too old to change habits, and besides he's not a real writer so he doesn't neccessarily have to prove originality.

Kass said...

The thing about cliches that comes to mind is that the reason some things are said over and over again in the same way, is that in some cases, there is truth there.

I had a feeling your haiku would be volcanically derivative. Very good.

Pearl said...

I, too, avoid cliches like the plague.


Smart aleck.


Unknown said...

A wonderful discussion. I think it brings up two separate points--the use of what we understand to be cliches & the fixation with originality. Working in music as well as in words, I'm always struck by how much can be done with a standard form & a set of stock phrases--the aucourant term in traditional music is "floating lyrics"--to distinguish them from cliches perhaps!--phrases such as "the sun will shine in my back door someday" that appear in many blues & folk songs. Yet the best of these blues & folk songs make these phrases carry a lot of impact even tho they're not original. It's a fascinating topic. Thanks!

Rachel Fenton said...

I think the same can be said of a lot of metaphors, too. Some are so overused they are annoying whilst others are so unusual they stick out and trip the reader. It's finding the best fit.

Your ash sky story is very odd from this side of the world. Enjoy the vapour trail free sky.

Ronda Laveen said...

I loved learning the history of cliche and unoriginality. Who knew?

Dave King said...

simply me
Hi, welcome! Thanks for that.

Obviously, you're Stephen Fry fan, too!

I was frightened off cliches at school - like sex, but I got over the scare much more quickly in the latter case.

Obviously, the succinct and right word is what you want, but there is a place for the cliche, I think - though it's a much smaller one.

I agree with both points. Quotations are the reverse of cliches (which are in a sense, quotations, of course) precisely because they are tailored to the context in which they are used and not artificially imported. The difference lies in the meaningfulness.


From hat I've read on your blog there's no chance of you incriminating yourself. Thanks for the comment on the haiku.

I'm sure that in this, as in most things, each will have his or her own pet hates. I don't have any strong feelings about emoticons - except that I've never used them. Which is cause and which effect, though I am not sure.


That's a very pleasing response. Thanks. A friend of mine relates how her mother
suffering from dementia said "AQnnd have done with it" after every utterance. Yes, I can quite understand the effect it must have.

Interesting, as much for an "outside" view of writers as against the rest of humanity
, as for anything else

There certainly is truth in some (most?) cliches, though it's not as often relevant.

Welcome to my blog. My thanks for your visit and for the comment.

Thanks for that John. I must admmit I had not thought about cliches in music, though they do turn up in many more environments than textual ones. Film is a great source of them, for example: the screech of car tyres during a chase, for example - even when the cars are on a dirt track.

The whole thing about the ash strikes me as very odd - the fact that a pilot flying through it wouldn't know he was doing so, for example.

Stephen Fry, I imagine!

Jim Murdoch said...

I would agree that there are different degrees of well-worn expression. We talked on my blog about the word ‘haunting’. No one would ever call ‘haunting’ a cliché but the fact is we use it without much thought; for some reason it’s the perfect word for the job. I think a true cliché is an expression which has become hackneyed; it used to be perfect but it has been so overused as to become effectively meaningless. I think about “Have a nice day,” and “I’m sorry for your loss,” two that Americans are very fond of. I’m not sure which one annoys me the most. I'm sure that each one if said with genuine sincerity still works just fine. So I would have to say that a cliché also involves attitude, a by-the numbers, one-size-fits-all approach to communication. Meaning is subtle. Words, often enough, are not.

Cloudia said...

Scholar and haiku poet!

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Carl said...

I agree with Cloudia. great informative post.