Clichés: A New Twist to an Old Problem

The New Oxford American Dictionary lists the definition of cliché as, a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.”

I have lately become aware of just how many phrases could be considered cliché. Obviously “It was a dark and stormy night” should be avoided, but it is surprising how many other phrases have worn thin. “Making peace with the past;” “she had a soft spot for (anything);” “to his heart’s content;” the list is endless.

Clichés exist for a reason. The question is, is their use due to modern laziness, or efficiency? They are a verbal shorthand, a familiar phrase that provides a lot of information in a very few words. The purpose of language is communication, and the more common phrases that are used, the fewer opportunities there are for misunderstandings to occur. When someone says, “she ran like the wind,” there is no room for interpretation.

Although I can see the problem with using too many clichés, I think that they have their place, especially when writing dialogue. The fact is that everyone uses clichés, all the time. If you were to write dialogue without incorporating at least a few of them, it would seem inauthentic. 

Some clichéd advice is to change the wording around a little to give things a fresh twist, such as:

Old: She ran like the wind.
New: She ran like a zephyr.

Old: He looked like the cat that swallowed the canary.
New: He looked like a dog with a ham bone.

Old: It’s the best thing since sliced bread.
New: It was better than a piece of pie.

Sometimes, things we say are not so much cliché, as they are just words that go well together. Where is the dividing line between something that is common language and something that is cliché? It’s easy to get caught up in trying to make everything original, but maybe sometimes, it’s okay to go with what you know. Like eating macaroni and cheese. You wouldn’t want a steady diet of it, but once in a while, it isn’t going to hurt anything.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Clichés: A New Twist to an Old Problem

  1. It’s funny, I have been told by several people certain lines are cliche’ and I’m thinking really? Cuz I must be living a different planet! Enough people use that term enough for it to become cliche’ where have i been? Great blog post!

  2. Cliches are really tough to recognize. Some of them seem to work so well, it’s tough to come up with an alternative. Good post!

  3. Wonderful post. Tough question. I love your sun filtering through the trees example and wouldn’t consider it cliched. Maybe common because of the vivid picture it portrays and its clean simplicity.

    But then again, common is the definition of cliche, right?

    On the other hand, I find the use of alternatives to be distracting. Metaphors and similes are very hard to create in a way that doesn’t sound forced or ridiculous. Every once in a while I run across one that is astoundingly beautiful and simple. Most often they leave me scratching my head.

    I guess I would just avoid the obvious and let an editor worry about the subtle ones.

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