Clichés: The Writer’s Enemy
The first of George Orwell’s rules for good writing was “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” He added that clichés “have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”
But, we all use clichés and often don’t realize we are doing so because the little rascals are stealthy in the way they elbow themselves into our prose. The trick is to keep them to a minimum. Proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation, then proofread exclusively for clichés.
Origin of the Word Cliché
As you would expect with that acute accent, the word is of French origin, and comes from the printing industry. Back in the day, cast iron plates were used to impress words onto paper; these plates were called stereotypes.
Your Dictionary picks up the story: “The noise that casting plate made sounded like ‘cliché’ (from clicher, to click), so this onomatopoeia word became printer’s jargon for the stereotype. Thus, cliché came to mean a word or phrase that gets repeated often.”
Oxford Dictionaries adds that there’s a deep irony here “while clichés are typically reviled in writing, the concept has historically been linked to a practice – printing – that helped the written word and indeed, literacy, become widespread in the first place.”
“The first man who compared a woman to a rose
was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”
French Poet Gérard de Nerval
The Bard of Avon
Shakespeare has burdened us with hundreds of clichés. Of course, he didn’t mean to be a cliché factory. He was just one of the most creative writers ever to grace us with his presence.
But, dear old Will died more than 500 years ago; isn’t it time some of his phrases were interred with him and only used in performances of his plays?
What might we lose?
- A rose by any other name would smell as sweet (Romeo and Juliet)
- Eaten me out of house and home (Henry VI Part II)
- The be-all and the end-all (Macbeth)
- A dish fit for the gods (Julius Caesar)
- Wild goose chase (Romeo and Juliet)
- One fell swoop (Macbeth)
- Brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet).
They should all be made as dead as a doornail (Henry VI Part II). Oops
Okay Will, point taken. Let’s move on to more modern outbursts of the dreaded, worn out cliché.
The Nothing Burger
A recent entry into the cliché vocabulary comes from Texas Senator Ted Cruz who has trotted out “nothing burger” on several occasions. Good one Ted – catchy, pithy, original. Well not quite so original
It seems Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parson got to the imaginary beef patty before Mr. Cruz; more than 60 years earlier. In 1953 she wrote that “After all, if it hadn’t been for Sam Goldwyn, Farley Granger might very well be a nothingburger.” She compounded the phrase into a single word, but she was right about poor old Farley. He had a long and undistinguished career in movies including a two-year stint on As The World Turns, sometimes as an uncredited actor.
And, here’s Trump mouthpiece Sebastian Gorka on MNSBC (July 2017) saying election campaign collusion with Russia “… is a massive nothing burger,” with heavy emphasis on “massive.” This raises the metaphysical question of whether or not something that is nothing can be massive?
Answers please on one side of one standard sheet of paper. No illustrations. Citations required.
Somebody, please euthanize the burger that doesn’t exist.
The One Hundred and Ten Percenters
The mother lode of clichés exists in the sporting world. We’ve all come across the one-game-at-a-time crowd. Here are a few others we hear ad nauseum:
- “The players are not all on the same page.”
- “That miss will come back to haunt them.”
- “It’s gut check time,” sometimes coupled with “It’s do or die time.”
- “He brought his ‘A’ game today.”
Happily, the world also gave us New York Yankee legend Yogi Berra, a man with a unique gift for creating clichés.
Some of Yogi’s classics:
- “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
- “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”
- “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
- “You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you.”
And, we can end this segment with the classic “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” This cliché purports to come from opera, in which the soprano of generous proportions belts out a song before expiring; what the comedian Victor Borge called a die aria (think about it). There is another interpretation, see Bonus Factoids below.
These Must Go
- Can we walk back the level playing field, move the goalposts, and hit the ground running at the same time?
- Please stop picking the low-hanging fruit.
- At the end of the day. When is that? When it’s acceptable to sample a martini? When you fall asleep after the fourth one? Midnight? Of course, the cliché is used as the prelude to something else. One union leader was heard to say after a strike “At the end of the day we’ve lost two weeks.”
- Can we throw the tip of the iceberg under the bus?
- Thinking outside the box needs to be avoided like the plague.
- People have to stop putting their thumb on the scale to move the needle.
- Can we step up, drill down, and reach out at the same time?
- And, if all these egregious clichés are not banished forever all hell will break out.
When the fat lady sings may be a misquote. According to one theory, the black eight ball in pool is sometimes referred to as the “fat lady” on account of the number’s double rotund shape. The aim is to sink the eight ball after a player has pocketed all her or his other balls. That ends the game. Hence the phrase “It’s not over until the fat lady sinks.”
Shakespeare was not above pinching a good cliché from someone else. His “Dead as a doornail” phrase appeared 229 years earlier in William Langland’s narrative poem The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman. Translated from Old English it reads “Faith without works is feebler than nothing, and dead as a doornail.” Langland himself borrowed the phrase from his own translation of the French poem Guillaume de Palerne in 1350. His Old English version is “For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenayl.”
Oxford Dictionaries says “Some people just tune out when they hear a cliché and so they may miss the point that you’re trying to make.”
- “George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing Clear and Tight Prose.” Josh Jones, Open Culture, May 20, 2016.
- “45 Everyday Phrases Coined by Shakespeare.” Fraser McAlpine, BBC, 2013.
- “Examples of Clichés.” Your Dictionary, undated.
- “The 50 Greatest Yogi Berra Quotes.” Nate Scott, USA Today, September 23, 2015.
- “ ‘Nothing Burger’ Is Nothing New. It’s Been Around for Decades.” A.J. Willingham, CNN, July 14, 2017.