Thursday, 14 January 2010

In defence of the cliché

Some clichés grate, irritate or make you squirm. You want to beg the perpetrator to please blend their imagination and vocabulary to create something with originality and impact. Something to ‘blow your mind’. But I ‘have a soft spot’ for some clichés that have, after all, ‘stood the test of time’, and by that definition, are ‘classic’.

Clichés are, also by definition, overused, some more than others; proverbs, such as ‘All that glitters is not gold’, often moralistic in tone. ‘At the end of the day’ and ‘knock your socks off’ really have to go, so weakened as they are by repetition that they have the power and resonance of a goose-feather.

Strange, yet everyday, clichés leave one pondering on their origins: ‘Apple of my eye’, ‘Armed to the teeth’ ‘The best laid plans of mice and men’ but they leave no doubt as to their meaning. Whereas some have failed to become a classic cliché, in my view, because they are second rate and clumsy, for example: ‘Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door’ or ‘Keep a bad dog with you and the good dogs won’t bite’. I ‘get the message’ but it prompts me to try and offer up a snappy alternative … later.

Some express the same concept with contrasting images: ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?’ and others. Others offer history; ‘keep your nose to the grindstone’, ‘the real McCoy’, ‘putting the cart before the horse’.

I would defend crisp clichés (possibly ‘to the hilt’) that encapsulate an emotion or situation and, above all, communicate without any misunderstanding; ‘Abandon ship’ – dramatic, with ethical overtones, short and sharp; ‘To break the ice’- simple and everyone understands it; ‘Burn your bridges’ – concise; ‘Butterflies in my stomach’ – terms like ‘collywobbles’ don’t quite ‘cut the mustard’ and attempts to improve such as ‘snakes writhing in my intestine’ probably would fail. Having said this, any writer ‘worth their salt’ would undoubtedly try and substitute some other metaphor to convey nervous emotion.

I mention the word cliché twice (I think) in my new novel, No Gypsies Served – maybe I use them more often than that! Hopefully, if I do then they are put to good use. The male character begins to pen his life story with the ‘cliché’ ‘My first day at school’. If a cliché is recognised as such I think it makes it more acceptable. It shows the speaker, or writer, is cliché-aware. The other cliché is a highly recognisable situation – but you would need to read (appreciate the subtle invitation!) the book to see this as it occurs near the end of the novel.

What’s your take on the best of our clichés? If you look up this website you may find your day will disappear as you wonder what there would be left to say without them. (apparently, allegedly, these are almost entirely attributed to the United States)

Afternote: Listening to radio news a couple of days ago, in the first minute: 'defining moment'; 'meltdown'; 'on the cusp'; and 'brought to its knees'. But are these clichés?

©Miriam Wakerly


  1. Is the Pope a Catholic always makes me laugh... let me explain. My family being Polish and my Grandparents strict Catholics, my Gran was also so proud of the late Polish Pope, John Paul II. Anyway, I digress...

    My sister came home from school (this was years ago btw) and told us that one of her English friends had actually said this in all seriousness because she didn't actually know the answer. Sometimes cliches are all the better when people misunderstand them, don't you think?

    I also recall when there was a question for £100 on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire something about babies and proverbial bathwater - I would have had to use a lifeline, had never heard of it!

  2. Taken too literally proverbs and suchlike can get you into a lot of hot water! And maybe if they are that confusing they are not very good ones; unless it is an actual language incompatibility. Maybe, though, the meaning should not be lost in translation; perhaps that is the true hallmark of a premium cliche!