I’ve always been fascinated by cliches. 25 years ago, my best friend and I actually started compiling a list of as many cliches as we could think of; I don’t know what ever happened to it. It’s difficult to not use them. Hephzibah Anderson reacts to a book criticizing the use of cliches and details how some of the more popular cliches originated.
I began to appreciate their sturdy truthfulness and comforting ancientness. You’d guess correctly that the poisoned chalice is Shakespearean (Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii), but I had no idea that “better late than never,” a phrase I use almost daily, was first inscribed by an ancient Greek, the historian and rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus. No surprise that one of the first mentions of “thinking outside the box” occurred in an aviation trade magazine in the 1970s, but “cut to the chase” originated as just that: a direction in the screenplay for the 1930 film Show Girl in Hollywood…
Not all clichés, you might say, are created equal. “At the end of the day,” which has justly been voted the most hated cliché, is little more than a verbal tic. “All things being equal” is another. Strip them from a sentence and its sense remains unchanged. Attempt the same with an apposite cliché and you might find you’re missing more than succinct wisdom. You’ve lost a bit of history because, far from being vacuous, the most enduring clichés tether you to generations of human experience. “Squaring the circle,” for instance, is a challenge first alluded to in English in a sermon by John Donne, but it dates back still further, to an ancient Greek geometer named Hippocrates of Chios.
William Safire famously urged writers, in a deliciously ironic turn of phrase, to “avoid cliches like the plague.” And that’s not bad advice, especially to a beginning writer, because it forces you to find new ways to express an idea. That’s a healthy part of learning how to use language. But I don’t think it should be taken as a blanket prohibition (ooh, there’s one) to be enforced on penalty of death (there’s another). Sometimes a cliche is the perfect way to say something, if only for ironic purposes. So you’ll get my cliches when you pry them from my cold, dead hand (okay, I’ll stop now).