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The truth about clichés: Why the stigma against them isn't entirely fair

Stock words and phrases often get used to death — but that isn't always the case


Orin Hargraves
July 20, 2014 9:30PM (UTC)
Excerpted from “It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches.”

A breath of fresh air. Few and far between. At the end of the day. Most of us immediately recognize these as clichés, whether we use them or not. Most of us also agree that English is suffused with expressions that are widely considered to be clichés, even if we can’t arrive at a consensus about just which of many expressions deserve the label “cliché” or, for that matter, how cliché should be defined.

Dictionaries, of course, have a say in the matter. The word cliché comes to English from French. Its original, literal denotation thoroughly informs its meaning today: a cliché was a convenience of printing, specifically a stereotype block bearing text that was used to produce multiple printed copies. From this meaning arose the idea of an invariable and reusable expression. Dictionary definitions of cliché all share some common features. Here are a few examples:

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  • a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought
  • a trite phrase or expression
  • a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse

The difficulty that arises in the very definition of cliché is that its principal characteristics—overuse and ineffectiveness—are not objectively measurable. What, exactly, constitutes overuse? Who is to be the judge of effectiveness? You will hardly find a definition of cliché that does not include these ideas, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to find an objective standard by which to gauge them.

Any judgment about whether a form of words is overused was necessarily subjective or speculative before it was possible to gather accurate statistics about language use. Nearly all judgments about what constitutes a cliché have traditionally relied on consensus: if enough people think a form of words is overused, or if a person who is perceived as having some authority about language declares such a thing, then the word or phrase becomes a cliché. The result of this haphazard process is that many phrases are designated clichés without there being evidence of their frequent use. That is, infrequently used words and phrases may be deemed clichés, simply because a large number of people, or a small number of influential people, find them annoying or designate them as clichés for some other reason. When asked to produce a cliché, many speakers simply produce an idiom. Idioms, looked at in isolation, are not necessarily clichés. Yet hundreds of these idioms fill up the pages of dictionaries of clichés, with little justification for their inclusion according to the very criteria that the compilers of these dictionaries enumerate. My research, on the other hand, has identified hundreds of phrases that are frequently used—indeed, surely overused—in English and that I think readers will agree are clichés, even though many of them have not traditionally been treated as clichés in popular or scholarly literature.

Today, lexicographers and other language researchers have a tool that makes the study of language much easier and more evidence-based than ever before: the corpus. A corpus (plural: corpora) is a collection of natural language in machine-readable form, assembled for the purpose of linguistic research. Most corpora are put together with careful attention toward achieving balance, so that the corpus as a whole is as much as possible a representative sample of contemporary or historical language drawn from a wide range of genres, often capturing both published texts and transcriptions of speech. In looking at language for the purpose of studying clichés, corpora have given me an excellent tool for determining how often, and in what contexts, a particular phrase or form of words is used. This makes it very easy to put to the test the question of whether a given way of expressing something may be, in fact, “overused.” While there can be no level of frequency that officially constitutes overuse of a word or phrase, statistics are very revealing about how often words are used in particular groupings.

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Working with a corpus it is possible, with a few keystrokes, to call up a dozen or a hundred or a thousand instances of a word or a phrase in the context of actual speech or writing. Other items in the lexicographic toolbox provide statistics on the frequency of words and phrases in relation to other words, or as a percentage of English generally. From these statistics emerge portraits of the life of words, their mating habits, their abuses, their triumphs and failings, in a much clearer and more comprehensive light than can be gleaned from casual reading or listening; it is a portrait that is far more dependable than the one that results from merely consulting your intuition about how often a form of words is used or whether people use it consistently, aptly, or inappropriately. Modern computational lexicography makes it possible to learn at a glance which pairs or groups of words are getting together far more often than their overall frequency in the language suggests that they would. Such pairings of words are called collocations and may include typical combinations representing several different parts of speech, such as adjective + noun (like abject poverty), noun + noun (like software download), or adverb + verb (like virtually guarantee). Figure 1 shows the way word combinations of extremely high frequency appear in a statistical format as extracted from a corpus. Here you see an index of the uses of the noun stamp when it precedes a prepositional phrase beginning with of. In other words, the illustration provides statistical information from the corpus about the phrases stamp of approval, stamp of authenticity, stamp of legitimacy, and so forth. The second column in the table is a raw count of the number of instances of the various combinations; the third column is a statistical construct that reflects the likelihood of such a combination occurring, based on the frequency of the words in the language considered separately. As you can see, the combination stamp of approval is many dozens of times more frequent than any other such combination—and in my view, the only phrase in the form stamp of ____________ that might be considered a cliché.

As for the effectiveness of a given form of words: this is impossible to put to an objective test because the arbiter of the effectiveness of language is its hearer or its reader. We all have access to the common lexicon of English that may alert us when we encounter an overworked form of words, but its particular effect on us will depend on subjective and individual facts, such as the breadth and depth of our reading habits. A phrase regarded as a cliché in one context may pass unobtrusively in another, where it is credited with quietly or even cleverly doing its job. Complicating matters further, everyone works with a rather fuzzy mental definition of what a cliché is. A very broad definition of cliché (which is not the basis of this book) takes in expressions that some people would regard mainly as idioms, proverbs, or both.

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Thousands of expressions in English have a necessary but not always sufficient identifying characteristic of a cliché: they express a common idea that requires frequent expression. Yet many of these expressions are not normally considered clichés because, despite extremely frequent use, they do not lose their effectiveness. Consider, for example, the day after tomorrow. What else are you going to call it? Though it is a rather long phrase syllabically, English (unlike some other languages) does not have a sparer formula to express this idea, and so we readily accept the expression as a unit and we neither grow weary of hearing or seeing it nor feel that speakers and writers use it too often and should perhaps find some other way of expressing the idea behind it. In a similar way, many idioms gain extremely high frequencies in English because they express very succinctly an idea that would take many more syllables if expressed in a literal way. Shed light on is a good example of this; it’s an entry in some dictionaries of clichés, but I do not think its inclusion is merited. I do not know of anyone who would declare that shed light on is not effective; it expresses efficiently to most people the idea “make known certain facts about,” and it is certainly preferable to the longer, more literal form. Some short idioms—such as bottom line—may go through a period in which they may be considered clichés but they eventually achieve the status of standalone entries in dictionaries because English has found no more efficient way of expressing the ideas behind them. These, to my mind, do not usually constitute clichés unless they are seriously and frequently misapplied.

What then, are the factors that are likely to nudge an expression from mere frequency in the language to perception as a cliché? What I have found in looking at hundreds of common expressions and collocations is that misuse, or at least infelicitous use, is very often the culprit that contributes to the perception of both overuse and ineffectiveness of a given form of words. In other words, it is often misapplication, rather than frequency of application, that leads to the perception of a phrase as a cliché. An expression is much more likely to be regarded as a cliché if it has typical or frequent use in contexts where it doesn’t apply very well (by being imprecise, misleading, or inaccurate, for example). Take the noun phrase best-kept secret. Best-kept, as an adjective, has few uses in English other than to precede the word secret, and discounting the adjective dark, best-kept is the adjective most likely to be found preceding secret in nearly every genre of writing. But as a few examples will show, things that are dubbed best-kept secrets are in fact often not secret at all, and it is rarely specified, sometimes not even implied, in what sense they are “kept.” This, in effect, makes both parts of this compound expression not very meaningful. It is also the case that the best-kept secret is found preponderantly in journalism, a medium that is by its nature contrary to the idea of “secret.”

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Dr. Eng has dubbed the often overlooked family health history as “the best kept secret in health care.”

Community colleges are no longer the “best-kept secret” in higher education.

Hilary Weston and Nicole Eaton featured them in their book In a Canadian Garden, and Reader’s Digest once referred to them as “Canada’s best kept secret.”

Usages like these very easily evoke a response that we are hearing about more best-kept secrets than we need to, and it is only a short step from this perception to declare that the form of words is a cliché. This phenomenon has its analog in the physical world: a tool used for the wrong purpose will be much more likely to show signs of wear than one used properly. If you use a saw as a hammer, you’ll not only fail to get the job done, but you’ll inflict signs of wear on the saw that may compromise its proper use for a more suitable purpose.

With that as background, let me lay out what is not a cliché as treated in this book so that readers will have a clearer understanding of its scope. The first distinction I will draw, mentioned in passing above, is between idiom and cliché. Many clichés are idioms, and many idioms are clichés, but they are not the same thing. Both idioms and clichés are expressions that typically have two common elements: first, familiarity, in that they are known to nearly all fluent native speakers; second, noncompositionality, which means that you cannot necessarily or easily infer the meaning of the expression by looking at the meanings of its constituent parts and composing them. All idioms are noncompositional: that quality is included in the definition of an idiom, although it should probably be noted that an educated native speaker can often make a good guess about the meaning of an unfamiliar idiom on the basis of its components and from its context. Many clichés are also noncompositional, such as elephant in the room; lock, stock, and barrel; and on the same page. Other clichés, however, do not meet this criterion, such as quick to point out; in any way, shape, or form; and a whole new level.

Published dictionaries of clichés contain many expressions that are clearly idioms but that I do not consider to be clichés in most of their usages. Numerous of these common expressions are not, to my mind, clichés, because they do not meet the criterion of ineffectiveness, despite their great frequency of use. This is particularly the case with idiomatic expressions that have a very specific meaning, the more literal equivalents of which are lengthy and unwieldy. Expressions in this category include, among many others, as the crow flies, get out of Dodge, out of pocket, test the waters, shed light on (already mentioned above), a bone to pick, and catch red-handed. While obviously noncompositional, these expressions lack one of the core qualities of cliché: ineffectiveness. All of these expressions have considerable frequency in English because they convey a specific idea efficiently and effectively. I do not find evidence that they are overused or misused, and therefore it does not seem sensible to classify them as clichés. The economy of shed light on is discussed above. Catch red-handed is similarly economical and vivid and is used in all contexts except extremely formal ones because it succinctly conveys an idea that is more cumbersome when expressed literally. Additionally, and like a bone to pick, it calls a vivid image to the mind that is based on sense data, and any expression is made more vivid and effective by having an element that is derived from input through one of the senses.

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I would also distinguish clichés from what I call formulas because there is sometimes a close relationship between the two. By formula I mean a fixed order of words that has a particular and sometimes technical meaning in a specific domain or genre. Examples include null and void in law and growing body of evidence in scientific literature. When formulas come unmoored from their genres, as they often do, they are likely to become clichés because of their more general, imprecise, or inaccurate application in more or in broader genres of writing, particularly in journalism.

In choosing which clichés to examine in detail in this book I have considered frequency as a core determining factor, since it is after all overuse that often leads to an expression being deemed a cliché. Expressions that I examined and found to have a frequency of less than .1 per million words are not included. On this basis, I excluded some familiar expressions such as rare window, get off the couch, lay down a marker, and at daggers drawn that, if used more frequently, might well attract the label cliché.

Having determined that a given expression met the core criterion of frequency, I then examined dozens or hundreds of instances of usage of each expression. Those that I have found to be used widely in contexts where they do not apply very well, or whose usage in particular contexts is problematic, I deem clichés and I treat in this book.

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The least quantifiable quality of clichés—and in fact the feature of expressions that leads people to call them clichés—is that they are often annoying. But they are never annoying in equal measure, to the same people, in the same contexts, and for the same reasons. As a natural language user and producer I am not immune to the irritation factor and I’m sure that it has influenced a few of my choices for inclusion in deciding where to draw the line between frequent expression and cliché, but I have never let this be a main determining factor, because of its subjective nature.

There are two other terms I would distinguish from clichés: proverbs and fillers. Both are frequent in English but do not meet the criteria of cliché, for reasons detailed below.

A proverb is a full sentence that expresses a general truth or that imparts a piece of advice, such as A stitch in time saves nine or Too many cooks spoil the broth. Proverbs may share with clichés the quality of being frequent and familiar; many of them are also not compositional. However, since they are generally taken to be true and effective in expression, they are essentially in conflict with one of the core ideas of cliché—namely, that of being trite or ineffective. Additionally, proverbs, being full sentences, do not fulfill a straightforward grammatical function, which is a feature of most of the clichés I treat in this book.

A filler is a word or sound inserted into speech that does not necessarily perform a grammatical function and that can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the text. Speakers use fillers to fill a pause, perhaps while they take time to think or simply out of habit. Common fillers in English are you know, like, well, uh, I mean, sort of, and basically. Some other fillers can be attached syntactically and are problematic cases because this feature would make them candidates for treatment as clichés, since they already fill the other criteria of frequency and ineffectiveness. Good examples of this border area of fillers are of course—which I do not treat in this book, though it is frequently used to no purpose—and once again—which I do treat, partly because it so easily bounds across the irritation line. But my guiding principle in the case of borderline fillers has been whether the expression represents a genuine intention on the part of the speaker. This feature, like some others about clichés, is one that cannot be determined with scientific certainty but that examination of instances of usage has allowed me to make informed judgments about.

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HOW DO CLICHÉS LIVE?

All clichés have a revenant lifestyle: they flutter to life briefly, vainly, whenever they are thoughtlessly disgorged from the mouths, pens, or fingertips of speakers and writers. And though they are often dead on arrival at their destination—the intended audience of the speech or writing—clichés have a viruslike ability to infect their recipients. Listeners to and readers of clichés, if they do not take precaution in the form of attentiveness to their own speech and writing, will find themselves the unwitting vectors of these forms of words when they write and speak. The clichés then continue to spread through the torrent of English, so many obstacles in a fast-moving stream, discouraging anyone who would navigate the stream deftly and slowing down the progress of effective and efficient communication.

A quality of clichés that is typically overlooked when people are disparaging them is that many of them are really very clever and original. Or rather, they were very clever and original the first time they appeared. So much so, in fact, that they immediately attracted hundreds and thousands of imitators: speakers and writers who were perhaps so eager to use the newly coined form of words that they applied it willy-nilly, or simply created a context in which they could use it so as to appear as original as the coiner had been. So, in this sense, clichés are very often a victim of their own early success. Just as a joke loses its ability to shock or amuse on subsequent hearings after the first, so it is with the ability of a clever phrase to seem particularly eloquent and apt.

An earlier draft version of this book was titled “The Graveyard of Dire Clichés.” The inspiration for that title was the naïve idea that it might be possible to actually put many old and tired clichés out of their misery by naming and shaming them. Following more extensive study and discussions with many friends and colleagues, however, I realized that most clichés will never die. All speakers find them extremely useful to smooth the steady flow of speech. Many, perhaps most, writers must resort to cliché from time to time in order to connect with their readers in a way that formal language, often barren of cliché, does not allow them to do.

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So while I have scaled back my ambition as a cliché-killer, I have persisted in my attempt to stop some clichés in their flight, capture and anesthetize them, splay their dull wings, pin them to the specimen board, and make them visible for all to see, so that they may be revealed in their true lack of color. My intention is to make speakers and writers more aware of the occasions when they are using clichés or when they think that they need to—for it must surely be the case that clichés are largely used mindlessly, given their viral proliferation. An increased awareness of clichés and the detriment that they typically represent to effective communication should serve as a motive for language users to consider alternatives to them.

WHERE DO CLICHÉS LIVE?

A number of genres are included in the main corpus I used in my research, the Oxford English Corpus. These include news journalism; lifestyle or “soft” journalism; blogs; writing on agriculture, sports, law, arts, the military, business, technology, medicine; other scholarly and scientific writing; and fiction. No genre of speech or writing is free of clichés, and it has been one of the many fascinating results of my research to discover the ways in which particular clichés are concentrated in different genres. Of all genres, however, none is more cliché-burdened today than journalism. Journalism has been historically and continues to be the true home of the cliché. The majority of clichés treated in this book are found in greater numbers, and in greater proportion, in journalism than in any other genre of writing. Many phrases originate in genres outside of journalism and continue to have a specific or technical meaning in their place of origin: matter of fact in law, for example, or exhibit a tendency in scientific writing. Once an expression has made a home in the fertile and supportive soil of journalism, however, it thrives and grows in thick patches, often losing its particular semantic characteristics.

There are many reasons to believe that journalism today is even more cliché-ridden than ever before. First of all, there is simply more of it: the barrier to entry that used to be represented by paper publication no longer exists, and today it takes nothing more than a web server and an Internet address to establish a presence behind a shingle that is effectively indistinguishable from much longer-established journalistic enterprises. Additionally, and lamentably, the resources that were formerly devoted to copyediting in journalism are no longer available or affordable to the purveyors of news stories. News items must be rushed to publication by fewer journalists doing more work than ever before, and much journalistic prose gets only the lightest or possibly no going-over by a senior editor who in former times might have been able to consider whether the reporter’s draft might be improved by the removal of numerous fixed phrases.

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Another genre that is particularly rich in cliché today is the blogosphere. Blog posts, often even those carried by well-established and funded concerns, do not typically receive editing attention from anyone other than the writer. All writers can attest to the influence that reading exercises on their own writing. If a writer of a particular blog spends appreciable time reading other people’s blogs, the viral capacity of clichés finds yet another vector and clichés continue to proliferate unchecked.

WHY PICK ON CLICHÉS?

The anticliché tone that has prevailed thus far in this discussion may give the impression that I oppose the use of clichés at all times, in all places. Far from it! Make no mistake! Let me be perfectly clear! All natural speakers, and most writers, use clichés from time to time, and language would be a very different and unwieldy medium for communication if we did not have clichés at our disposal to perform a number of mundane tasks. Clichés are often the readiest and most effective tool available for quickly introducing informality into a discourse when the time is right for doing so. They may also help to establish confidence in an audience by introducing to them a note of familiarity from speakers or writers who are dealing with a difficult or daunting subject, or with an unfamiliar audience. From a pragmatic perspective, clichés can establish trust by giving assurance that the writer speaks the reader’s language. None of these judicious uses of cliché, if kept in check, is objectionable.

No writer can or should avoid clichés altogether, all the time—any more than a cook should strive to serve completely novel and unfamiliar dishes at every meal. That would be a needless burden on the cook and an unrewarding experience for the diner. We all look for some degree of familiarity and pattern in our experience, and this applies equally to our experience of reading and listening. The judicious writer and speaker will take the reader or listener on a journey that is grounded in familiarity but that leads to areas unknown and unexplored. On this road, familiar landmarks provide confidence for the travelers; but too many familiar landmarks quickly suggest that no one is going anywhere. Thus, cliché-ridden language is offputting to readers and listeners because it very quickly gives the impression that there is nothing to be learned from it—that the speaker or writer is simply rehearsing something that has been heard or read before, giving expression to things already well known rather than to things never before revealed. Effective writing and speaking is nearly always a matter of invention, and cliché is the opposite of invention; it is repetition, and thus a missed opportunity to exercise creativity or invention. Truly dire cliché is speaking and writing that puts its audience on automatic pilot, because of its overfamiliarity and imprecision; it suggests to its audience that nothing is being said or written that merits attention.

Clichés, like the poor, will always be among us; but like the poor, their constant presence is not a justification for ignoring them, and their constant presence should not lead to the conclusion that they are intractable. Today, readers and listeners are probably subject to more clichés than ever before: we have the opportunity, if we wish to seize it, of listening to an unending stream of unedited chatter on television, radio, and online, much of which consists almost entirely of clichés, variously divided and reassembled. The Internet makes it possible for writing to be placed in the public eye a second after it has exited the writer’s mind—often without judicious inspection by the writer, let alone by an editor who might suggest repairs for faulty or ineffective expressions. The result is that clichés become even more overused, but unfortunately no less virulent.

It is easy to assemble an argument that we have now entered a perilous era in which clichés threaten to overtake language completely because of the declining quality of writing and education, the increasing exposure of everyone to poorer models of language, and the greater cultural influence of celebrities and others whose accomplishments rarely include their ability to model language cleverly and intelligently. This idea, however, is not new. The British scholar and critic Christopher Ricks, in his essay “Clichés” from the late 1970s, wrote “the feeling lately has been that we live in an unprecedented inescapability from clichés. All around us is a rising tide of them; we shall drown and no one will save us.”

He mentions “multimedia” as a factor in this development, at a time when the Internet, blogging, texting, YouTube, and Twitter had not even entered people’s imaginations.

Readers who have taken up this book with the hope that it will guide them to words and phrases they might use in the place of worn clichés may be disappointed. I have purposefully avoided suggesting alternatives to clichés in most cases for two reasons: (1) an alternative way of expressing the idea behind a cliché is often itself another cliché and (2) by suggesting that a particular form of words is a workable alternative to a cliché, I would simply be laying the groundwork for another cliché to develop. Clichés are the sterile offspring of a mind that is not engaged in creativity, and follow- ing the advice of an authority is surely the opposite of creativity. So rather than propose alternatives, I would direct the reader to George Orwell’s ad- monition to be wary of letting ready-made phrases do the work of express- ing what you want to say:

They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

The best way to free your speech and writing of unneeded and detrimental clichés is to construct it thoughtfully, paying close attention to the common tendency to insert a ready form of words in a place where it easily fits. Does it really say what you mean to say? Or can you commandeer words from the vast store of English to do the job for you more effectively, by building up the expression of your ideas from smaller pieces? A writer and speaker who dimly illuminates his subjects with formulaic ex- pressions, while also using such formulas to bind his thoughts together, unwittingly telegraphs to his audience that there is no need for them to pay attention because nothing is being said that they have not heard before.

Excerpted from “It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches” by Orin Hargraves. Copyright © 2014 by Orin Hargraves. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.

Orin Hargraves is a lexicographer and author of language reference books. He grew up in the mountains of southwestern Colorado and graduated from the University of Chicago. A past president of the Dictionary Society of North America, Hargraves has contributed to dozens of dictionaries and other language reference books. He currently lives in Niwot, Colorado, and researches the computational use of language at the University of Colorado at Boulder.


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