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For the Love of Cliches

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).

Comments

  1. Didaktylos says

    My pet hate as regards cliches is the use of “… know what I mean?” as spoken punctuation.

  2. Michael Heath says

    Hephzibah Anderson writes:

    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.

    Ove the past couple of months I’ve been going back and stripping, “in fact” out of what I write prior to publishing. I find the above truism holds for this cliché as well.

  3. matty1 says

    So you’ll get my cliches when you pry them from my cold, dead hand

    It’s kind of OT but this re minds me of one of my favourite cartoons, captioned Charltion Heston’s deathbed it shows two doctors one holding a rifle and saying “I took this from his cold dead hands” – look it was funny at the time OK?

  4. jaxkayaker says

    All else being equal, I prefer ceteris paribus. My least favorite cliché is “it is what it is”.

  5. Draken says

    There are only so many meaningful combinations of words in a sentence. As the total volume of written and spoken human heritage grows, inevitably more and more becomes cliché.

  6. cry4turtles says

    I catch myself speaking in cliche a lot (smartphone won’t accent). I’ve taken the “avoid cliche” advice in writing, but sometimes they just fit in. Did anyone ever notice that songwriting seems to be the opposite? Take a cliche, write around it and voila! You have a song.

  7. says

    Matty1,

    It’s kind of OT but this re minds me of one of my favourite cartoons, captioned Charltion Heston’s deathbed it shows two doctors one holding a rifle and saying “I took this from his cold dead hands” – look it was funny at the time OK?

    It sounds funny now!

  8. says

    “Studies have shown” is one that gets under my skin.

    And I think “pot calling the kettle black” is a cliched analogy that gets overused.

    Oh, “comparing apples to oranges”, too… apples and oranges have more similarities than dissimilarities. If someone said “comparing apples to Wankel rotary engines”, it would be more appropriate.

  9. davidworthington says

    This sentence is incorrect: ““At the end of the day,” which has justly been voted the most hated cliché, is little more than a verbal tic.”

    It is an oral tic. While it is verbal in construction, it isn’t a problem in written communication. Verbal means that it adheres to sentence structure–i.e. isn’t nonsense–writing in sentences is verbal and orality is not necessary. Oral is correct when referring to what is spoken aloud.

  10. says

    Oh man, “it is what it is” just annoys the hell out of me. It’s not a cliche so much as it is just a meaningless statement. Cliches are least do express something, and usually we all know what it is expressing (usually an analogy of some kind). “It is what it is” only expresses “I have nothing to say here, so I’m going to say this.”

  11. Trebuchet says

    The worst is when people misuse cliches; for instance saying “I could care less” when the mean the exact opposite.

  12. says

    It’s even more annoying when people can’t pronounce a cliche correctly. I get irked whenever someone says “Nip this in the butt.” That cliche, rightly understood, has nothing to do with biting someone’s ass.

  13. leni says

    Ha, I was going to mention “it is what it is” too.

    I think it’s a bit more than just “I have nothing to say” though, because I hear people say this a lot at work and it usually refers to a situation or circumstance that one is powerless to change. It’s resignation. But it’s thoughtless, unquestioning resignation that grates on me (even if it is sometimes prudent).

    I don’t know if this counts as a cliche, but I have to watch how I use the words “utterly” or “completely”. I’ll catch myself saying things like “utterly meaningless” or “utterly superfluous”. They end up being these utterly useless flavor particles that just make whatever I’m trying to say sound hyperbolic.

  14. leni says

    I forgot to mention, it seems like there could be a whole subcategory of cliches just for the corporate world. I had a boss that was so bad with this that I kept tallies at meeting, which were of course on the meeting minutes in code.

    Sea change. (wtf is that, anyway?)
    Moving forward.
    Heads up.
    Using the word “utilize” instead of “use” because it sounds more business-y.
    Any analogy involving buckets.
    Team player.

  15. dingojack says

    Leni allow me to asist you:

    Full fathom five thy father lies;
    Of his bones are coral made;
    Those are pearls that were his eyes;
    Nothing of him that does fade,
    But doth suffer a sea-change
    Into something rich and strange.
    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
    Ding-dong,
    Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell
    The Tempest

    :) Dingo.

  16. says

    “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.

    “At the end of the day” means “This fact remains true, regardless of other factors mentioned.” “All things being equal” means “prima facie,” basically. They don’t change the meaning of the sentence, but they’re intended to put that sentence in a context, which they do. So no, not “little more than a verbal tic.”

    At least, not necessarily. They are for people who overuse them, but so are all cliches. These are just a couple of the most overused. Others can be gleaned by watching most any reality show. And then there are the reality show-specific ones, like “I’m not here to make friends.” Which, translated, means “I’m here to be a douche because I think that’s the best way to win.”

  17. says

    ‘ “All things being equal” is another. Strip them from a sentence and its sense remains unchanged.’

    I don’t know that I’d call this one a cliche. There are times when it’s an important qualifier. I suppose some people just throw it in there for no reason, but there are times when you’re assuming that everything else is constant for the sake of argument, when in real life that may not hold true.

  18. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    One of the things I’ve always liked is using variants of [the subset of] cliches [that don't make me cringe] and expressions [ditto] to express related or modified ideas: IE, “using a hatchet where we need a screwdriver.” Not only is it satisfying and usually concise (cliches being selected for short-and-pithy, usually), but it serves as a sort of impromptu IQ test: smart people will understand what I’m doing and roll with and follow it while dumb people will “correct” the saying.

  19. Draken says

    And then there are bizpsy neologisms which escaped from team building seminars into the wild, like ‘proactive’. Killitwithfire.

  20. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    All things being equal != prima facie.

    Prima facie = “at first glance” or “at first consideration” or even “considering only the surface appearance”

    It most certainly does not mean “all things being equal”.

  21. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Oh, “comparing apples to oranges”, too… apples and oranges have more similarities than dissimilarities. If someone said “comparing apples to Wankel rotary engines”, it would be more appropriate.

    Worse, you’d compare them the same way: weight, color, lack of blemishes…

    “Apples and orangutans.”

    “Apples and orange. Not the fruit. The color.”

  22. shouldbeworking says

    “Apples and orange”? I’m colour blind. My contribution is “at this point in time”.

  23. dingojack says

    Now they are not only ‘at this point in time’ they’re also ‘going forward’.
    Dingo

  24. John Hinkle says

    A phrase that gets my hair up is “reach out,” as in, John, I want you to reach out to the team in Chennai and leverage their core competencies. I’m not sure it’s a cliche, maybe a euphemism or a metaphor. But I wish someone would drive a stake through it, or kick it to the curb. It irritates me no end and fries my eyeballs.

  25. says

    Yeah, plenty of bad ones out there. In particular, I heard one origin of “I could care less” that makes more sense in the original context. “I could care less” was a sarcastic reply to a request for ideas to solve a trivial problem: The speaker cared very little and offered to stop caring at all as a means of ‘solving’ the problem. I favor “I couldn’t care less” for the sake of clarity, since you can’t give fewer cares than zero.

    On other language peeves, I’ll add misuse of “literally,” since it completely misses the point of the word. One verbal tic I’ve been combating lately is starting too many sentences with ‘of course.’ It is a verbal tic, not just a spoken one, since I do it while typing.

  26. mishcakes says

    I despise “Everything happens for a reason”. I see people post that shit on Facebook all the time and it makes me want to scream. Once I responded something along the lines of “a child just died of starvation after living a life of poverty and despair. What was the reason for that?” Don’t think I got a response.

  27. dingojack says

    Bronze Dog – since ‘caring’ is a quality not a number then ‘less care’. [/pedant]
    ;) Dingo

  28. says

    area man@20,

    Exactly. If we take “all things being equal” to mean “all other things being equal,” then we’re dealing with an essential qualifier that says: if we hold all variables but this one constant, then…

  29. says

    @ Ed:

    “Oh man, “it is what it is” just annoys the hell out of me.

    Irritates me, too, but I think it has a meaning. It means nothing more to see or, can’t be further reduced or explained. I find it used most often to deflect further questioning or discussion. I associate it with “it speaks for itself,” but “it speaks for itself” is usually used to suggest that the underlying meaning or significance is evident on the surface, while “it is what it is” implies that there is no underlying meaning or significance. The latter is likely to irritate a thoughtful person with an inquisitive mind, unless we’re talking about something that really is irreducible, such as the Law of Identity.

  30. davem says

    “at this moment in time” grates with me. What other dimension can a moment be in? Space? What’s wrong with ‘today’ or ‘now’?

    If anyone says ‘know what I mean’, I sometimes answer ‘No, what do you mean?” until they get the drift. (sic!)

  31. harold says

    “All things being equal” is another. Strip them from a sentence and its sense remains unchanged.

    What a shockingly illogical thing to say.

    “All (other) things being equal” is a reference to the need to eliminate confounding variables.

    It completely changes the meaning of a sentence.

    For example, “it is always better to have more money” is idiotically false – what if the means of acquiring the money create a net negative situation?

    On the other hand, “All other things being equal, it is always better to have more money”, while a slight overgeneralization, is basically correct.

  32. says

    “I despise “Everything happens for a reason”. I see people post that shit on Facebook all the time and it makes me want to scream.”

    There’s a cure for that; stop using Facebook.

    Back when a friend’s daughter was a young teenager, she and I had a conversation about how people speak. She was somewhat upset that her mother kept correcting her WHILE she was speaking. I said (paraphrasing a bit, it’s been about 20 years):

    “Hey, like, I know just what your mom means. I’m like, y’know, um, it makes me like, y’know, like MENTAL when, um, people, like, don’t use, any, um, like, care in their speech.”.

    Her mother gave me that glare that she usually reserved for when I got her husband to laugh at my dirty jokes.

  33. caseloweraz says

    Democommie:

    Seems like it should have been the kid who gave you that glare, not her mother. I’m just sayin’…

  34. caseloweraz says

    “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).”

    I did a Google search and found more cliches than you can shake a stick at. Literally.

    More Cliches Than You Can Shake a Stick At
    Compiled by Mimi Burkhardt

    I thought I’d run that up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.

  35. scenario says

    I really don’t have any problems with cliches when used once in a while. If a half hour political speech contains two or three of them, who cares. When a 1/2 hour speech is just a string of 30 cliches, it is a waste of time.

    It depends on what your writing. A novel is different than an informal business report is different than an instruction manual. Sometimes a cliche can save time. Using a cliche every other sentence is stupid.

    Cliches can act as short cuts. “It is what it is is” used all the time by the football coach of my local team. He uses it during interviews because reporters frequently ask the same question in different forms over and over again. Would you have won the game if player A didn’t get hurt? Do you miss not having player A on the team? … The first time he say’s something like, “He’s an important player, of course we would be better with him.” By the third or fourth time he’s asked the same question, he just answers, “It is what it is.”

    I like “It is what it is” in the right circumstance. The way I understand it is we cannot change the past. It is a waste of time standing here complaining about what cannot be changed. We need to start thinking about what we can do to get around the problem rather than just standing here complaining about it. Five words say to me the same thing as three sentences.

  36. scenario says

    People on this board deal with creationists who bring up the same old stupid questions over and over again. Let’s say Ed comes up with the perfect response to “If humans are descended from monkey’s, why are there still monkeys?” Now people on this board start using his answer. Now other people around the web start using it. After a while, the answer has now become a cliche. Should Ed stop using this answer?

  37. John Phillips, FCD says

    Dr. X #33, I agree, I use a slight variant fairly common around here, all else being equal, meaning that only the explicitly named variable need be considered.

  38. cactuswren says

    It’s even more annoying when people can’t pronounce a cliche correctly. I get irked whenever someone says “Nip this in the butt.” That cliche, rightly understood, has nothing to do with biting someone’s ass.

    Or the individual who maintained quite fiercely that since “think” is not a noun — there’s no such thing as a “think” — then the correct form MUST and could only be, as he had always rendered it, “If you think that’s correct usage you’ve got another thing coming”. Never mind that the “think” formation is merely ungrammatical while the “thing” formation is meaningless. You can give someone a “thing”, he argued, and you can’t give anyone a “think” — therefore “thing” must be correct.

  39. says

    @caseloweraz:

    The daughter, laughed, a delightful sound to for me to be privileged to hear. She was quite perceptive and knew that I was saying what I said to poke a little fun at both her and her mother.

    Her mother and father are both sculptural artists (primarily) and do amazing work. They have a level of discipline that I long for, otho, they are both pretty much constitutionally unable to just fuck off and have a random and senseless good time. I, in my small way, try to help such individuals to back away from the wheel and enjoy stuff that will profit them nothing except some pleasure.

  40. ottod says

    It’s even worse when they don’t even understand the cliche and mess it up, e. g. the aforementioned, “…another thing coming.” I once heard someone say, “We need to grab the bull by the nose, put our shoulders to the grindstone, and get this moving.” I was watching her when she said it, and I could detect no indication of a sense of humor. Recently, I sat through several classes in which the instructor kept saying, “…fell over like a camp stove…” I’m sure that camp stoves do occasionally fall over, although I’ve never seen it happen. I have seen camp stoves (and camp stools) fold.

    Deliberately mangled cliches are sometimes fun: apples and kumquats, blood from a vampire, addidas, amigo…

  41. birgerjohansson says

    Words to be avoided: “paradigm”.
    — — — — — — — — — — — —
    “comparing apples to Wankel rotary engines” WIN!

  42. dingojack says

    Demo (#46) – “….Her mother and father are both sculptural artists …”*

    Must be their chiseled good looks, or perhaps they work-out.

    :) Dingo
    ———-
    * Why not use the less pretentious: “sculptors”?

  43. says

    I hate the phase “I’m just sayin'” or “Just sayin'”! Might as well say “I am just speaking” or “I am just using language.”

    I also hate “left hand side” wen “left” works just as well and avoids confusing limb transplantees.

  44. dingojack says

    theschwa -‘
    ‘as you go along the passage, follow the left hand side until you reach the junction, then go left’.
    See the difference?
    Dingo

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