"Mother,” asks 10-year-old Johnny upon returning from school, “do I have a cliché on my face?”
“A cliché on your face? Whatever do you mean, Johnny?”
“A cliché,” he answers, “you know, a tired expression.”
Johnny nailed it: Clichés are tired expressions. Their fatigue comes from their having been overused, and often badly used. They are words and phrases that no longer carry much meaning and have even less force. They reveal mental laziness on the part of those who use them. They are despoilers of style. Using clichés is like dressing out of the dirty-laundry bag—someone else’s dirty-laundry bag.
Who is to say what is a cliché? Some clichés are obvious, of course, like throwing that baby out with the bathwater or watching someone like a hawk. But others are in doubt. Has “boots on the ground” now achieved cliché status? Has “go-to guy” arrived there? And what about “take,” as in “what’s your take on the subject?” Until recently, a cliché was what arbiters of language claimed it was, and, being arbiters, they could sometimes be arbitrary.
This has now changed, owing to modern computational lexicography, which allows linguists to gather statistical evidence on how frequently words and phrases are used, and in what combinations, and by whom, and in what settings. Overuse alone does not always mark a cliché. According to Orin Hargraves, a lecturer in linguistics who works on computational analysis of language at the University of Colorado, “It is often misapplication, rather than frequency of application, that leads to the perception of a phrase as a cliché.” In It’s Been Said Before, Hargraves sets out as his criteria for clichés that
they are frequent, often used without regard to their appropriateness, and they may give a general or inaccurate impression of an idea that could often benefit by being stated more succinctly, clearly, or specifically—or in some cases, by not being stated at all.
Clichés can, of course, be clever, and some contain a fairly high truth quotient. Many clichés began life as dazzling metaphors or scintillating similes. The Bible and Shakespeare, an old joke has it, are magnificent, but contain way too many clichés. Clichés can also be useful for spinning off, reversing, and doubling back on, for comic results. Maurice Bowra once remarked that an overly friendly Oxford don had given him “the warm shoulder.” Philip Larkin, after leaving his first librarian job in the provincial town of Wellington, which he described as “a hole of toads’ turds,” wrote, “I’d have missed it for anything.” I have been known sometimes to introduce my wife as my “better three quarters.”
As Hargraves acknowledges, clichés are long-lived. They offer ready refuge to the unoriginal. Speakers find them useful in connecting with audiences. He notes: “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.” Is it a cliché to say that clichés are always ready to hand? Whether it is or not, they are.
Orin Hargraves is, by self-designation, a “cliché-killer,” out to divest the English language of as many clichés as possible by highlighting their illogic and ridiculing their stupidity. Excellent cliché hitman though he is, he realizes that the job cannot be done with anything like thoroughness and that most clichés will live on; he even believes that some clichés deserve to do so, if only because they can put people at ease by their informality and familiarity. “None of these judicious uses of cliché,” he writes, “if kept in check, is objectionable.” He distinguishes between clichés and proverbs, and he does not regard as clichés those idioms that do the job of precise expression more economically than lengthier phrasing, among them “shed light,” “leaps and bounds,” and “part and parcel.” His larger intention here is to bring about a greater awareness of the inanity of most clichés and to point out “the detriment that they typically represent to effective communication.”