on writing – cliché

why cliché should be avoided like the … erm … an airborne infectious disease

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Tonight we have an eclectic mix, a veritable smorgasbord of entertainment. Though you’ve probably said “eclectic mix”, do you actually know what eclectic means? Thought not. Neither did I until I looked it up. This is because it’s only commonly seen in that cliché. Cliché can use words most people don’t know the meaning of, but get them to repeat it like parrots (cliché). This isn’t an intelligent state of affairs.

When you start out in writing, cliché seems professional; it’s like you’ve stumbled onto familiar ground (one) and is the most natural and intuitive thing to do. There are, for example, two clichés right off the bat (and two) in these two sentences. Using cliché seems to legitimise your writing precisely because it lends it the comfort of familiarity.

Cliché is the linguistic version of copying and pasting when you struggle to put yourself across. You’re copying and pasting other people’s words as a million have done before you. If you could trace the saying back to the one who originally said/wrote it, you’d probably find he/she was a capable writer or orator as they had to find an original way to epitomise what they were trying to express; it’s a difficult and active process which requires effort and imagination. That’s why as a writer you need to stop at the same junction between prose and cliché and reinvent again.

Cliché is the level of language used by Harvester menus, humorous birthday cards, radio disc jockeys and political press teams.

The phenomenon has a mayfly existence in political circles. The cabinet, shadow cabinet and their advisors push a series of media soundbites when a notion needs to be polished to be repeated in lieu of actual argument by the masses. The public really do end up repeating them – especially with the epidemic spread of social media. It’s a form of echolalia.

In the past few years the phrases “difficult decisions”, “too far too fast”, “fix the roof while the sun’s shining”, “cost of living crisis” etc etc have been absorbed via osmosis into the public psyche but won’t be remembered for long. With regards to these political salvoes, historians of the future will be able to date a cliché’s vintage. If a newspaper cutting were to be found without the date, examining the clichés in a political column could be as reliable a test as carbon dating the paper it’s printed on.

Not all clichés are so time-specific though. Whether it’s to be in stitches, in a pickle, to be eaten out of house and home or even to be as dead as a doornail, these were seeds of vocabulary all planted in the sixteenth century by one Will Shakespeare – proof that a cliché’s origin can come from a competent wordsmith. When you mine a good phrase, it can catch on in which case it gets repeated. Now we have a larva turn to a rote chrysalis that might hatch into a cliché.

Cliché could be used in technical writing but such a document’s brief is not to evoke emotion nor make a connection with the reader. Its remit is to set out things in a logical sequence and illustrate quantitative data. As long as the logic is there, cliché won’t really harm the text.

Where cliché does the most damage is in expressive writing. Imagine if you replaced every cliché with the words “what he said” That’s actually what you’re doing. Cliché is therefore a crutch that supports you as you straddle the voids in your own prose and the more clichés that are to be found within it, the more obvious that crutch becomes to the reader.

Some clichés are perfect: to not be able to get a word in edgeways is like it’s a physical object you’re trying to shunt into the gaps in a speeding convoy of words from the other party. The openings are so narrow it keeps glancing off and so never penetrates the dialogue. To have a rapier wit is another beautifully crafted example – it incises, thrusts and parries in the debate’s exchanges. To have a memory like a sieve is exact in its construction. A raft of measures (actually a common political saying) is a good analogy for something that is humble but will keep people afloat through difficult times. Whoever first came up with it was a deft embroiderer of the English language but then it becomes robotic in the repetition.

Is there anything good to be said about cliché? Maybe. It reinforces a sense of shared language and by extension, a shared culture. But this benefit is also its restriction. It’s also a retrospective compliment to its creator, but again, we don’t usually know who that is to attribute the praise to.

The English language is a veritable smorgasbord of choice words – an eclectic mix of saying. At the end of the day we just need to roll with the punches, grin and bear it, and come out fighting for our native tongue.

Or alternatively,

The English language is our dew glistening hedgerow: an embarrassment of fruit we should never plunder but tend to. We must prune, feed and cross-pollinate to warp the drupes and berries into sumptuous shapes and flavours. We need to ensure the sweet, the tart, the sharp and the running juices of its yield. Let’s keep our native tongue fertile.

The more you employ cliché, the more you disappear as a writer. Avoid cliché like the…….. well, it’s over to you.

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