Word Nerd: Expressions we love to hate

Think outside the box. The tip of the iceberg. At the end of the day.

All these expressions are recognized as clichés, and, even though I realize this, I am not above occasionally spicing up my speech or writing with their use.

But what exactly is a cliché? Lexicographically, this is easy to answer. The first definition of cliché in the OED from 1832 states, “The French name for a stereotype block, a cast…; applied esp. to a metal stereotype of a wood-engraving used to print from.” By the end of the 19th century, the sense of “stereotype” was extended to expressions that were reusable. The OED also informs us that when used as an adjective, cliché means “stereotyped, hackneyed.”

In the real (as opposed to the lexicographic) world, deciding whether an expression is stereotyped or hackneyed is highly subjective. One person’s cliché may be another person’s idiom or a spouse’s favourite Biblical proverb or Shakespearean quote.

Clichés have become an easy target for writers on language. Longman Guide to English Usage describes clichés as “substitutes for independent thinking or writing.” The Canadian Writer’s Handbook states that they “are another form of wordiness: they are tired, worn out, all too familiar, and therefore generally contribute little to a sentence…, They are another kind of deadwood that can be edited out of a draft.”

Donna Woolfolk Cross in her book Word Abuse is even more censorious: “Clichés don’t have to make a great deal of sense. Whether they do or not, people keep using them. A person who wouldn’t dream of using someone else’s toothbrush will feel not a qualm about using someone else’s tired expression.” This position, I believe, is too harsh for several reasons. An expression might be viewed as a cliché in one context but its meaning might be both crystal clear and effective in another. In any case, a cliché may be overused but because it is common, it is likely to be understood.

Philip Howard, in The State of the Language, writes “Poets and philosophers mint brand new language. The rest of us have to make do with the common currency that passes ceaselessly from hand to eye and mouth to ear. The most overworked cliché is better than an extravagant phrase that does not come off.” Also, clichés are often the most effective way to introduce informality into discussions that require this tone. They also help establish a rapport between writers or speakers whose audience is faced with comprehending a subject that it finds challenging.

And we should not forget that some clichés are overused because they are clever, notwithstanding they are not original. But, of course, they were original at one point and because of their cleverness attracted hordes of imitators. So a cliché is often a victim of its own success, hoisted with its own petard. One can imagine an adolescent seeing Hamlet for the first time and, when asked his opinion of the play, replying that it was just a bunch of clichés from pop songs such as “Cruel To Be Kind” and “Sweets For My Sweet.”

This is not to say that certain clichés, shouldn’t be avoided. For example, some are actually longer than the non-clichéd option. Cases in point: “At the end of the day” can be shortened to “finally”; “at any given time” to “whenever”, and “at the present time” to “now.”

Clichés can be misapplied at times leading to a possible lack of clarity. Take the expression “best-kept secret.” If you Google this phrase along with “restaurants Montreal,” you’ll receive 113,000 hits. Methinks the cat has left the bag. This expression offers a moment of cognitive befuddlement best avoided by the careful writer.

Also, clichés tend to be hyperbolic when the sense being implied is more measured. Such is the case of “Small actions can make a world of difference” spotted at davidsuzuki.org. It is unlikely that the difference effected qualifies with the largeness of “world.”

My final ruling: The inventive writer or speaker should avoid clichés – like the plague.

Howard’s next book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in Spring 2016.

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