I’ve got a confession.
I love clichés. I mean, I really love ’em. I know I’m not supposed to. I’ve heard it said over and over again. Clichés are bad. Delete all clichés in your writing. Clichés suck. Your writing sucks if it is full of clichés. It’s been said so often that it’s almost a…well…cliché.
I get it. I do, honestly. When writing is chock-full with clichés, it’s difficult to read, it’s boring, and it most definitely lacks creativity. I mean, where’s the artistry in a string of clichés? And for that matter, where is the clarity? A paragraph that is merely a bunch of clichés tied together with a bit of punctuation is likely to be vague – after all, exactly how daft do you have to be to be daft as a brush? And unless you actually died when you were frightened to death, how scared were you? Good writing, in theory, shouldn’t include these elements of obscurity and it should certainly be more original, more imaginative. So yeah, I get it.
But still…a well-placed cliché is a special thing. It’s that little piece of carbon that got stuck and turned itself into a sparkling diamond, glimmering out of the cracks most unexpectedly. And do you know what? Bumming around on the internet today (okay…every day) has been made realise that I’m not the only one who loves a good cliché. In fact, there are almost as many defences of clichés as there are attacks on them and that’s made me a very happy bunny indeed.
Clichés help get your point across
Another piece of writing advice I’ve heard quite a lot is get your point across as quickly and as efficiently as you can. Another is don’t use ten words when you can get your point across in three. You know what can do that? Clichés. One of the things about clichés is that they are so well known and so common that when we hear them, we understand what they mean immediately.
She was like a kid in a candy store. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. At the end of the day…
We all know what they mean. So surely, they are the quickest and most effective way of getting your point across. That’s pretty much all your need.
Clichés are sometimes actually idioms…
There is a fine line between a cliché and an idiom. A cliché, according to the OED, is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”. An idiom, on the other hand, is “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words”. Makes sense, right? They’re completely different. So…
He’s over the moon! Idiom or cliché? OED says idiom. Other examples include chip on your shoulder, high as a kite, sick as a dog, out of the blue, kicked the bucket.
Apparently, an idiom becomes a cliché when it becomes overused, but for an idiom to make sense, for it to actually be an idiom, it must by definition be well-used and well-understood. And besides, who decides when a phrase has suddenly become ‘overused’?
…And sometimes, they’re tropes
The OED defines trope as “a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression”. Hyperbole is a great example – she has tons of money. I doubt she literally has tons of money, and if she does, I’d quite like some of it. I’m not a happy camper, you’re my sunshine, it’s as clear as mud. All tropes.
Take situational clichés too. Perhaps, Queenie and McCavity as the powerful queen and her hen-pecked lover are not quite as clichéd as they first seemed. Perhaps, instead, they demonstrate “a significant or recurrent theme; a motif”. Perhaps they’re a trope too.
Clichés can be deliciously naughty
The thing is though, it’s not all the grammar and semantics that makes me like clichés so much. I’m a lot simpler than that. I like clichés – when they’re well-placed and glimmering through that crack – because they’re fun. They make me laugh. They paint a picture. They are that last piece of chocolate cake when you’ve already had four and you’re feeling sick. They’re that extra stretch to retrieve the Pringles you purposely put out of your own reach because you can’t be trusted. They are that tasty McDonalds when you should probably be eating a salad.
Okay, so gluttonously gobbling five slices of chocolate cake, a whole tube of Pringles, and a super-sized Big Mac, fries, and a coke all in one go is more…mental instability, you’ve-got-a-serious-problem-and-need-to-sort-your-head-out territory but that actually works into the analogy. Eat all that, you’ve got a problem, but the occasional, well-placed treat is deliciously naughty. Clichés work in the same way – binge on them, and your writing will suck. But slip a naughty one in now and then? Well then you’re in for a proper treat!
But most of all, clichés are useful
At its most basic level, though, clichés are an extremely useful tool for communication. They provide us with a bunch of stock phrases that we can grasp at quickly, when we need them, so we can say what we mean without needing to delve too deeply into anything. Studies have shown that when you put people on the spot – when you thrust a microphone in their face or demand a reaction of someone – they are more likely to use clichés than at any other time. They fall back on familiarity, they take comfort in these stock phrases that we all know – and that secretly, we all love. Everyone understands what that person is saying and, for the most part, we brush over it, accepting it as correct. And d’you know why? Because it isn’t incorrect. As long as clichés form a background scattering, as long as they really as those diamonds glimmering through the cracks rather than the cracking land itself, clichés are freakin’ cool.