What role does cliché play for writers and writing?

The word is encumbered with negative associations, but clichés can be useful to writers

Clichés represent a paradox: they are used by all speakers, and are familiar to everyone, yet they are never evaluated appreciatively or even neutrally: the very word cliché is encumbered with negative associations relating to unoriginality, overuse, and ineffectiveness. Does it make sense for us to use these common expressions so freely when their use is widely disparaged?

A problem that arises immediately for the student of cliché is the want of agreement about which expressions are clichés, and which are not. The hallmarks of cliché that I noted above - unoriginality, overuse, and ineffectiveness - are not objectively measurable; they arise as a judgment that draws partly on the context in which an expression is used, and so it is in its implementation, rather than in any inherent quality, that an expression is likely to be derided as a cliché.

This fact provides an important clue about why a particular expression might sometimes slip into the stream of speech completely unnoticed, where it does its job quietly and then leaves, while the same expression in another context is deemed as inadequate, lamentably unoriginal, and dead on arrival.

Consider, for example, the common phrases that are typically exchanged in friendly greetings. How are you? How’s it going? How are you keeping? What’s up? In most cases we do not regard these questions, or the typical answers to them, as clichés; instead they are formulas, a stock of frozen expressions whose purpose probably has less to do with encoding information than with the maintenance of smooth relations. They are unoriginal, surely, perhaps overused, but certainly not ineffective.


When a conversation proceeds beyond stock greetings, however, a threshold is crossed, and speakers have an opportunity to either craft original sentences, or to remain stuck in the well-worn rut of the familiar - in which case, expressions that we may think of as clichés are bound to appear. What do you say in response to “How’s the weather down your way?” If you remark that “It’s pissing down” or “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you have bypassed an opportunity for originality and simply provided information in the form of idioms that have become clichés.

What is the difference between an idiom and a cliché? It’s a distinction that has a lot to do with how some expressions come to be thought of as clichés. When you ask whether an expression is an idiom or a cliché , you are asking two different types of question. Idiomaticity is a question about meaning and how it is derived: an expression is an idiom if its meaning is greater or different than the sum of its parts. Rain cats and dogs, as the crow flies, in the twinkling of an eye, are all idioms because you cannot arrive at their meaning by composing the individual meanings of the words in them. Are these expressions clichés? That’s a different question that has to do with how an expression is used, and the judgment of the listener or reader about its effectiveness.

Many expressions that we regard as clichés are also idioms. Clearly, such expressions did not enter the language as full-blown clichés because at one time they could not have enjoyed one of the characteristic traits of cliché: being familiar. All idioms were novelties when they first gained a foothold in the language, and most of them were rather clever novelties at that. The dual felicity of being both clever and apt is a license for success in language, and so many idioms in the long history of English have gained considerable currency and still enjoy prosperous careers: sea change (Shakespeare), a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15), give a wide berth (nautical jargon), the land of Nod (Jonathan Swift, referring to sleep rather than the Biblical location). These idioms all have secure places in the lexicon of English-and any of them might be considered a cliché as well, in a context where a reader or listener deemed the expression to have fallen short of what the occasion called for.

Consider, for example, give (someone/something) a wide berth. It conjures a vivid and apt image in relation to something that is like a ship under way: gigantic, mobile, and unstoppable. Give a wide berth can still be used effectively in a context that suggests this scenario. But its felicitous use conveys something more specific than simply "avoid," and a writer for the Boston (UK) Standard who titled a recent column "Why I'm giving Christmas adverts a wide berth" has failed to rise above cliché. Perhaps he knew that "Why I'm avoiding Christmas adverts like the plague" would be an even worse offence, but he seems to have lacked the energy to dig any deeper.

I think we only find expressions grating, disappointing, or unfortunate (and therefore, clichés) in contexts where something more powerful than a cliché is desirable and we recognise that the speaker or writer has thrown away an opportunity to be creative, instead taking the path of least resistance and inserting an expression that is familiar, probably concise, and without any capacity to engage our attention. The first music critic who attributed “soaring vocals” to some chanteuse may have grabbed our attention; the thousands of others who have used the phrase since that first time have settled on just being hacks.

In my book about clichés I have tried to provide some guidelines for speakers, and writers especially, about the roles that clichés play in our language. Without clichés, linguistic expression would certainly involve more effort: we would not have the liberty to slip in a ready-made phrase with the confidence that it would guide the reader or listener down the path that we have laid out for them, and we would miss the opportunity to find a point of common ground with our audience that comes from knowing they will recognise and identify with a commonplace way of expressing an idea. Just as we may obtain most of the calories we need to sustain us from familiar foods, we may also get most of the information we require from familiarly packaged ways of expressing ideas.

But meat and potatoes alone makes for a dull diet, and language riddled with clichés does not stimulate us to engage with the writer or speaker. The best use of clichés is thoughtful and sparing; they may provide a small and comfortable foundation from which we can take our readers or listeners on an interesting journey.

It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches by Orin Hargraves is published by Oxford University Press