Let us now praise... the cliché

It’s concise, time-tested, and instantly familiar. What’s not to love?

By James Parker
Globe Correspondent / October 18, 2009

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WHO WILL SAY a good word for the cliché? Its sins are so numerous. Exhausted tropes, numb descriptors, zombie proverbs, hackneyed sentiments, rhetorical rip-offs, metaphorical flat tires, ideas purged of thought and symbols drained of power - the cliché traffics in them all. A lie can be inventive; an insult can be novel. Even plagiarism implies a kind of larcenous good taste. But a cliché is intellectual disgrace. The word itself seems to shape the mouth into a Gallic sneer.

Writers of course have always been extra-spooked by cliché. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” No, I don’t think I shall - because somebody else already did that. And in 2001 Martin Amis officially declared war against cliché with a book entitled, uh, “The War Against Cliché.” “All writing,” he proclaimed, pennants flying, “is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and of the heart.” And indeed Amis in his dazzling career has routed cliché, scattered it, seen it off with a thousand boilingly brilliant and novel images.

But here’s the thing: were any of them quite as good as “fit as a fiddle?” Time, to use a particularly sage cliché, will tell. If in 50 years an Amis-ism like “reduced to tears of barbaric nausea” is common currency, then he’ll have made the grade. Durable, easily handled, yet retaining somehow the flavor of its coinage, the classic cliché has fought philology to a standstill: it sticks and it stays, and not by accident.

Let’s consider the origin of the word. For 19th-century typesetters, a cliché was a piece of language encountered so often in the course of their work that it had earned its own printing plate - no need to reset the individual letters, just stamp that thing on the page and keep going. So the cliché was an object, and a useful one: a concrete unit of communication that minimized labor and sped things up. I imagine that a nice hardy cliché like “on its last legs” or “tempest in a teapot” does more or less the same thing inside our heads: one bash of the stamp, one neat little payload of meaning, and on we go. And speaking of tempests, how did we manage for so long without Sebastian Junger’s “perfect storm,” the epitome of a vigorous and helpful cliché? (“A perfect storm in a teapot,” on the other hand, is not a cliché. Yet.)

I see one or two hands going up out there. You sir - yes, you at the back, in the felt hat. What’s that? “Tempest in a teapot” isn’t a cliché, it’s an idiom? Ah, but there you hit upon the mystical super-cliché at the heart of cliché studies: No one can say with complete certainty what a cliché is. To me it might be a cliché, to you it’s an adage. Or a catchphrase. Or a salty bit of slang. The very earliest examples of cliché, if you look at them for long enough, seem about to turn into something else. From the Dark Ages: “hither and thither.” Cliché or not? And how about Homer’s “bite the dust”?

Let’s head for safer ground, where the cliché-ness of the clichés cannot be questioned. “At this defining moment...”, “We stand at the brink of...”, “a few bad apples,” “I apologize, above all, to my wife.” Politicians, especially American politicians, are almost obliged to speak in cliché, for fear they will stray into that zone most terrifying to the electorate - the heady and unpredictable zone of original thought. Democracy, we might say, runs on cliché: on truisms, bromides, caricatured opinions, boiled-down ideas and statements that everyone thinks they agree with. Cliché implies the consensus without which we’d be shooting one another in the streets - and the more fragile the consensus, the grander and more magniloquently all-embracing the clichés must become. “The greatest country in the world...”, “I put my faith in the American people...” An American politician can be off-the-cuff, instinctive, zig-zag, but only if he or she is prepared immediately to make a cliché of it: look at what happened to the word “maverick” in the last election. And the niftiest political-class coinage - “the politics of personal destruction,” for example - becomes a cliché at amazing speed.

Blogdom, YouTube, and round-the-clock news have undoubtedly accelerated the cliché-certification process: you can say “Leave Britney alone!” at 10 in the morning and it’s a fully-accredited cliché by noon. This is cliché skimming on the moment, seeking its opportunities, wonderfully alive. But what of the timeless cliché, the cliché you can steer your course by, the cliché that carries a small freight not just of meaning, but of wisdom?

I sometimes think that my entire psychological and ethical structure, such as it is, falls somewhere between “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and “It takes two to tango.” Observations like these have been road-tested, times beyond number, and discovered to be sound. They are laden with experience, and yet somehow jaunty. Some witty individual must have coined them, somewhere, but they glow with the accumulated knowledge of the race. They are clichés, and they belong to you: as a speaker of English, they are your birthright. Use them proudly. And when life hands you a lemon, remember that it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

James Parker writes regularly for Ideas and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.