[ Issue 20 ]

Clichés fascinate Emily Bronto

Let Bikwil introduce you to Clichés


Maybe it's not exactly everything you wanted to know about clichés, but as far as Harlish Goop is concerned, it's still plenty to be going on with.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


“All clichés should be avoided like the plague” (a sign on a news editor’s desk) is presented by Pam Peters’ Cambridge Australian English Style Guide (CAESG) as a nice oxymoronic example of “do as I say, not as I do”. It echoes, doesn’t it, that unforgettably self-contradictory exhortation of MGM’s Samuel Goldwyn, “Let’s have some new clichés”.

We all know what a cliché is — a phrase, once startlingly fresh in its imagery, perhaps, but now predictably stale through overuse. And that’s the intriguing thing. Despite its tarnished image, each clichéd phrase was once brand spanking, sparkling new, and its shine has worn off only because it has become too successful.

Or, as Times critic Bernard Levin has nicely put it, “today’s striking thought is tomorrow’s platitude, and next week’s cliché”.

No doubt some Bikwil readers will also be aware of the word’s derivation:

The word cliché means “stereotyped” in French, where it once referred to the stereotyped block cast from an engraving, from which multiple copies could be printed. Our clichés recast unique events in a standard mould. (CAESG)

David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1997 paperback ed. ISBN 0 521 59655 6) has this to say:

In clichés we see fragments of language apparently dying, yet unable to die. Clichés emerge when expressions outlive their usefulness as conveyors of information. They are dying not from underuse, as with the gradual disappearance of old-fashioned words . . . , but from overuse.

There are some valid everyday uses for clichés in speech, however. According to Crystal’s wide-ranging book,

The passing remarks as people recognize each other in the street but with no time to stop, the selfconscious politeness of strangers on a train, the forced interactions at cocktail parties, or the desperate platitudes which follow a funeral: these are the kinds of occasion which give clichés their right to be.

Even for writers, as CAESG points out, they have some value:

Clichés are a particularly tempting resource if you have to write a lot in a short time. For journalists it’s a way of life, and a crop of clichés can be harvested from the pages of most daily papers, predictable phrases which readers can skim over . . .

Having led you this far, I have to plead guilty to mixed feelings about clichés.

On the one hand, I share with countless other lovers of the English language no desire to suffer again utterances that are as monotonously wearying as the following conventionalisms:

democratically elected
fall through the cracks
fundamentally flawed
Information Superhighway
last-ditch attempt
mandate to govern
on a scale of 1 to 10
pushing the envelope
raft of (measures/problems/ . . .)
the reality is
recipe for disaster
sends the wrong message
thinking (wo)man’s pin-up
tyranny of distance
warts and all.

Yet, at the same time, clichés used with finesse in the right context have added immeasurably to my life. That context is, it goes without saying, the intentionally humorous one. When I’m in the mood, I can think of little else as satisfying as experiencing a passage methodically piled high with cliché atop cliché. This is especially the case when the text in question has a mock-heroic intent.

Alternatively, notes the CAESG, “. . . [w]riters sometimes use clichés deliberately as a way of parodying a style, and the parody itself controls and limits their use”.

Now, what better parody of a certain style could there have ever been than Yes (Prime) Minister? Its virtuoso scripts by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn made it Her Majesty’s favourite TV programme — and Margaret Thatcher’s, too, who in its heyday (and hers) commented, “Its closely observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy”.

From the linguistic point of view, rather than the political, that show skilfully satirised political/civil service jargon (mainly circumlocution from Sir Humphrey) as well as throwing in many a mixed metaphor concoction (always from Jim Hacker), and occasionally an appalling pun or a linguistic pedanticism (“Thank you Bernard”).

This is from the episode entitled The Writing on the Wall:

Sir Humphrey: Well Minister, if you asked me for a straight answer then I shall say that, as far as we can see, looking at it by and large, taking one time with another, in terms of the average of departments, then in the final analysis it is probably true to say that, at the end of the day, in general terms, you would find, that, not to put too fine a point on it, there probably wasn't very much in it one way or the other, as far as one can see, at this stage.
Jim Hacker
: Is that yes or no?
Sir Humphrey
: Yes and no.
Jim Hacker
: Suppose you weren't asked for a straight answer.
Sir Humphrey
: Oh, then I should play for time, Minister.

How about an author from a different place and time — Frank Sullivan, say? He was an American humourist (1892-1976) who from the early 1930s was a long-time staff member of The New Yorker. His perhaps most famous piece was A Garland of Ibids, a witty parody of earnest academic writing overloaded with footnotes.

But of more direct relevance here is his series of sharp yet somehow mellow satirical interviews with Mr. Arbuthnot, an expert user of clichés. Each of these discussions spoofs a particular vocation, such as literary criticism, movie making (pace Sam Goldwyn), tabloid reporting of crimes of passion and violence . . .

The Cliché Expert Testifies on Literary Criticism begins this way:

Q Mr. Arbuthnot, you are an expert in the use of the cliché as applied to literary criticism?
A I am told that I am, sir.
Q We shall soon find out. What is this object, marked Exhibit A, which I hold?
A That is a book.
Q Good. What kind of book is it?
A It is a minor American classic. Truly a prose epic.
Q And what kind of document is it?
A It is a valuable human document.
Q Very good, Mr. Arbuthnot. Please continue.
A It is a book in which the results of painstaking — or scholarly — research are embodied and it should interest all thoughtful readers. This reviewer could not put it down.
Q Why not?
A Because of its penetrating insight into the ever-present problem of international relationships. It is a sincere and moving study of an American family against the background of a small college town, and it is also a vivid and full-blooded portrayal of the life of that true child of nature, the Southern Negro.
Q How is it written?
A It is written with sympathy, pathos, and kindly humor. It throws a clear light on a little-understood subject and is well worth reading.
Q How is it illustrated?
A Profusely. It is original in conception, devoid of sentimentality, highly informative, consistently witty, and rich in color. Place it on your required-reading list.

And let’s never forget the great P.G Wodehouse, of whom in the cliché connection it has been written that his quote marks around verbal banalities are “invisible” — i.e. clichés aforethought.

But he needs a separate article (or more) to himself. Any takers?

As you might expect, there is some fascinating stuff relating to clichés to be found on the Internet. If you want impress people with your taste for classical erudition, for example, I suggest you visit a site called Classics Teachers’ Page (, where you can pick up a handy selection of such phrases as

augean filth
Olympian detachment
saturnine character
Scylla and Charybdis
stentorian roar
stygian gloom,

and so on (about 70 of them).

A differently slanted Web site I like is that entitled Children’s Answers to Clichés ( This lists the answers a class of (U.S.) fourth-grade students gave when asked to provide original endings to some famous sayings.

Cast a glance at these literal but entertaining approaches:

A bird in the hand is . . .
(a real mess)

A rolling stone . . .
(plays the guitar)

Don’t bite the hand that . . .
(looks dirty)

I think, therefore I . . .
(get a headache)

If you lie down with the dogs . . .
(you’ll stink in the morning)

Laugh and the whole world laughs with you; Cry and . . .
(you blow your nose)

To err is human . . .
(to eat a muskrat is not)

You can’t teach an old dog new . . .

Before I wind up, just in case you want to explore the whole subject more thoroughly, let me quickly recommend a diverse quartet of cliché-oriented books.

First, Nigel Rees’ The Joy of Clichés. This funny book from 1984 provides “a complete user’s guide to clichés for every situation”, or at least for every British situation:

. . . step by step instructions offer advice on how best to employ them so that you will soon be able to speak and write clichés like a native. Emulate the masters of the art — top politicians, journalists, television personalities, trade unionists and romantic novelists to name but a few. Note how successful many cliché-users have become — the Queen, Arthur Scargill, Barbara Cartland, William Whitelaw — they must know what they’re doing!

The next two, let me warn you, take the opposing view to Rees — namely that there is no fun whatsoever to be derived from using a cliché, only shame. Even so, both offer some groovy examples of the cliché-monger’s art.

Naturally, there’s Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Clichés. My edition is a paperback of 1978, ISBN 0 7100 0049 9. It is a book “full of things better left unsaid”, the publisher’s blurb informs us, “hackneyed phrases, idioms battered into senselessness, infuriating Gallicisms, once-familiar quotations and, longo intervallo, tags from the ancient classics”.

Now the Thesaurus of Alternatives to Worn-Out Words and Phrases, by Robert Hartwell Fiske (1998, ISBN 0 89879 601 6). “If our language seems languid, it’s partly because our metaphors are moribund”, says Fiske, so his aim is to help us avoid “reaching for the easy word or phrase rather than seeking the most accurate, most vigorous one”.

A fourth book is Walter Redfern’s Clichés and Coinages (1989, ISBN 0 631 15691 7), sadly already out of print. While not as straightforward to read as the others I’ve mentioned, Redfern’s scholarly and thorough dissertation is well worth perusal. One of its strengths is its full bibliography, which lists additional useful works (including many in French) few of which I was aware of.

Like Crystal, Redfern sees clichés as both “Musak of the mind” and assisting “social lubrication”. But however you regard them,

. . . [t]hey are highly contagious, and there is no known immunity, except possibly silence . . . and even that only conceals the infection.

Finally, there is a little booklet from 1983 issued by the then Australian Broadcasting Commission. It’s not exclusively about clichés (far from it), but Watch Your Language! (ISBN 0 642 97263 X) does open with a lovely cliché-saturated passage which went to air as a purported news item on the AM programme way back in 1971, on April Fool’s Day. I commend it to you.

So where does all this leave us writers?

If “resisting clichés takes mental energy”, as CAESG declares, the implication has to be, I presume, that when our brain gets weary we should give in and flaunt them.

Heck! My brain’s been feeling tired for (p)ages . . .

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