In today’s linguistic world, one major issue widely considered as oddity of language is cliché. There are myths and realities surrounding the use of the so-called cliché in contemporary usage. If care is not taken, the excessive fear against the use of cliché in either speaking or writing may cause a person to develop logophobia / verbophobia, that is, persistent, abnormal and unjustified fear of words.
Cliché is the past participle of the French verb clichér, “to stereotype”. Thus, in English, a cliché is a world, phrase, clause or sentence that has become figuratively stereotyped or so overworked that it has ceased to be effective (Mekalfe and Astle 1998). Clichés are used often innocently by ingenuous people and are apt to provoke tolerant smiles or at the worst, impolite sniggers.
In the beginning, no expression is a cliché. They were the same set of words or phrases that were hitherto considered pungent, economical, clever and witty expressions.
From all the available literature on grammar and usage, it is realised that clichés are not necessarily bad. They can be appropriate in certain casual speaking and writing situations. For the avoidance of doubts, clichés are also called bromides or trite, hackneyed expressions, many of which rely on figurative language.
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. Such phrases “as at this moment in time” and “every Tom, Dick and Harry” as used to be said, have come to be frequently used that they have lost their power to inform, to enliven, to mean (David Crystal 1997).
Despite these phrases being considered hackneyed expressions, they survive, in a kind of living death because people continue to use them, despite complaints and criticisms. They are, in effect, lexical zombies.
To be effective as a writer, one must avoid mixing figures of speech inappropriately. Neither should clichés be used for descriptions in which more original comparisons would be appropriate e.g. hard as a rock, stubborn as a mule, smooth as silk, easy as pie, hate wish a passion, the die is cast, quite as a mouse, lovely as a sun flower among others are not fit to be regarded as vivid and original comparisons.
Through constant use, however, clichés lose their originality and become hackneyed. If any of these expressions or others like then, come into your mind while you are writing or speaking, one needs to be cautious. In writing you have time to hunt for ways of escape, but in speech, you are liable to say the first thing that comes to your mind. The use of the term cliché from 19th century till date has continued to be associated with a desire for originality of expression.
Clichés are better tolerated in everyday conversation than in serious and academic writing. Good writers avoid them because they are often vague or imprecise and when they are used frequently, clichés may rob your prose style of personality and uniqueness. Therefore, indiscriminate use of clichés – overworked phrases, may cause your writing to sound lifeless and trite.
In one of the rules of usage, writers are prohibited from disguising a cliché by putting it in quotation marks; rather, one is required to revise as appropriate the trite expressions particularly in writing e.g. busy as a bee, cold as ice, blind as a bat, face the music, solid as rock etc. All these tired old expressions are poor substitutes for more forceful, direct way of expressing thoughts and ideas.
Some scholars refer to clichés as dead metaphors or over-used similes. If you must use them, they must be used sparingly e.g. like a fifth wheel, busy as a bee, clear as crystal, fat as a pig, thin as a rail etc. It is important to note that a simile always contains the world ‘like’ or ‘as’ to emphasize comparison. If these expressions are carefully used in writing, they can make our expressions colourful and apt. But when they are over-used, they lose their freshness and force.
When they are fresh, metaphors add sparkle to writing. But they are used heavily, they worn out and lose their charm. Therefore, an over-used metaphor is called a cliché. Many idioms and stock expressions are also commonly called clichés. They are described as substitutes for independent thinking and writing. One can hardly avoid using the occasional cliché, but clichés that are inefficient in conveying their meaning or are inappropriate to the occasion should be avoided. Like outdated slangs, trite expressions that once called up original images and conveyed a sense of excitement and discovery could become a burden to writers, if carelessly used. In essence, the very qualities which make a phrase striking when it is new could work against it when it has been used too much.
Trite diction is believed to have the tendency to block the flow of thought in writing. Whenever such trite diction or expression is recognized, the triteness should be removed during revision.
Other examples of trite expressions include: last but not the least, black sheep, raining cats and dogs, make ends meet, on top of the world, birds of a feather, apple of an eye, sigh of relief, easier said than done, spread like wildfire, hook line and sinker etc.
Occasionally, clichés enliven writing, if they are given a new twist. For example, a writer once wrote “she is a professor who is mindful of absent”. In the given example, the writer had taken the clichéd “absent-minded professor” and given it new life. This implies that sometimes clichés get new life with a witty turn or surprising application. If you can use a trite expression or cliché in a new, surprising way, you are overcoming the predictability that is its stock in trade.
Many modern clichés are stock modifiers’, they are also referred to as parasitic modifiers. As parasitic modifiers, they are really sly clichés which one must avoid in writing e.g. overriding importance, woefully inadequate, far-reaching consequences, increasingly apparent are just a few examples. For the avoidance of doubts, stock modifiers are more or less “Darby and Joan combinations of words that often for no reason are always seen together”.
What this reveals is that writers who express themselves in clichés haven’t made the effort to think very carefully or originally (Werriner, 2002). Or a writer may resort to clichés when he or she runs out of ideas. Therefore, one is obliged to deal with clichés the same way we dealt with loaded language.
There is also one word cliché often called a buzzword, meaning a word that thoughtlessly buzzes one of your mental buttons e.g. diversity, globalization, generation, millennial, new normal, paradigm, proactive, roadmap, synergy, wellness etc. Often no harm comes from using buzzwords or proverbial expressions. It is not possible to invent fresh language for every idea and thought just because one is trying to avoid clichés.
In business writing, we have expressions that could be regarded as clichés and these include: permit me to state, in due course, enclosed herewith, awaiting your further orders, the undersigned, thanking you in advance etc.
There are two main schools of thought on the use of clichés. The first is that in all the use of trite, over-used, thread bare and outworn expressions, there is probably a connecting thread of meaninglessness. One may therefore want to base the notion of cliché not on the expression itself but on its use, if it seems to be used without much reference to a definite meaning, it is then perhaps a cliché (McArthur, 2006). Of course, this line of attack fails to separate cliché from the common forms of polite discourse. The second and more workable approach would be simply to call a cliché whatever word or expression you have heard or seen often enough to find annoying.
Clichés are especially common in political discourse, because when a catchy phrase scores well with the public, politicians like to use it over and over. In a 1996 television appearance, presidential candidate Ross Perot used the term “a giant sucking sound” to describe the thousands of American jobs being transferred to Mexico via the North American free Trade Agreement. It went over so well with the viewing audience that other politicians and media figures began using it. With such over-use, it had lost its freshness and has become another hackneyed expression.
Clichés are generally less irritating in conversation than they are in writing because, like idiomatic expressions, they help speakers cope with the moment-to-moment pressure of putting ideas into words. (Christine A Hult and Thomas N. Huckin 2008).
Given the background information above which are reflections of opinions of erudite scholars in English Grammar and Usage, it is suggested one uses words or phrases that are vivid, descriptive and specific instead of trite expressions such as ‘hit the nail on the head’, ‘crystal clear’, .‘better late than never’ etc. particularly in formal or academic writing.
We should not also forget that clichés are often specific to language and cultures and may constitute communication barrier to international readers.
In conclusion, the writer’s avoidance of clichés is impossible in writing and conversation. The trouble about clichés is that writers often use any of the trite expressions because they think they are fine or because they are the first thing that come into their heads. Hence, those who resort carelessly to cliché are also given to overworking figurative expressions particularly dead metaphors.
Based on the forgoing, I wish to lend my voice that if you come to a situation where a cliché is the best way to express an idea, go ahead to use it. Of course, the most overworked cliché is better than an extravagant phrase that does not come off.
Christine A Hult and Thomas N. Huckin (2008) The New Century Handbook: New York, Pearson Longman pp 764-765.
Crystal D. (1997) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language: USA, Cambridge University Press pp 186-187.
Gatthorn A.A, C.W. Kreidler and E.J. Heiman (2000) The Dynamics of Language: Lexingston Massachusetts, D.C Heath and Company pp273-274.
Graham K. (2009) Improve Your Grammar: Glasgow, Herpar Collins Publishers pp 223-227.
McArthur T. (2006) The Oxford Companion to the English Language: New York, Oxford University Press. Pp222-223.
McCrimmon J.M. (1980) Writing with a Purpose: New York, Houghton Mifflin Company pp 152-153.
Metcalfe J.E. and C. Astle (1998) Correct English: Great Britain, Gibrine Publishing Company pp 142-143.
Werriner J.E (2002) English Composition and Grammar: Chicago, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishers pp 307-308.
Wyrick J. (2007) Steps to writing well with Additional Readings: United States, Wadsworth Cengage Learning pp 164-165.