When is a cliché?

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When is a cliché?

Post by Phil White » Sun Nov 22, 2015 9:39 pm

Is a “tired cliché” a tired cliché? Is a cliché only a cliché in the mind of the hearer?

Why do we love to hate modern clichés like “going forward” and “at this moment in time”, merely get more or less mildly annoyed by aphorisms and proverbs and barely bat an eyelid at well-worn collocations, or slang and euphemisms that we all use to communicate?

It is tempting to say that the first use of a novel phrase or collocation is a sign of creative genius, the second is plagiarism and all uses thereafter are clichés.

Is it the tiresomeness of “our long-term economic plan” (the Brits will recognize that one), the vacuousness of “going forward” or the triteness of “time will tell” that make these phrases gut-wrenchingly loathsome?

Surely it is not merely the laziness or unwillingness of the speaker to be more creative, as there can probably barely be a collocation uttered on this planet that has never seen the light of day before. I have difficulty enough assembling my thoughts half-way coherently, let alone being creative at the same time. I can “take a leak”, and nobody will bat an eyelid, but if I “point Percy at the porcelain”, there will be some who inwardly groan, although the latter phrase is more colourful and amusing than the first, at least the first time you hear it. Indeed, I can, as I just did - twice, use “bat an eyelid”, and few readers would have done so. But how many winced at “saw the light of day”?

Is it perhaps that we suspect that the speaker has abdicated all responsibility to think about what they are saying? Or perhaps that we feel they are attempting to claim for themselves a wisdom, wit or linguistic genius that they clearly do not possess?

It is, of course, tempting to close out with a witty, self-referential cliché, but I am genuinely interested in what makes a cliché a cliché for you.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: When is a cliché?

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Nov 23, 2015 5:41 am

Phil, for me a newer cliché is often an annoying phrase that has recently been repeated so many times that it has lost its uniqueness and even sometimes it’s meaning. “No problem,” for example, has easily lost both. For a large selection of “Irritating expressions or worse” and discussion see here.

Some newer clichés get so entrenched that they cease to irritate some and just may slide into becoming an idiom or saying. Bottom line,” for example, has become so ubiquitous that you’ll find it used in textbooks as well as in normal speech without a blip. However, it still engenders a bit of irritation in me (how soon they forget). (>:)

So, it is partially in the mind of the hearer (I'm still mildly bugged). But if enough hearers get irritated or if it hangs around long enough it may become an official cliché which appears in such books as The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés.

And over the years the sayings becomes entrenched as clichés with the newer getting more resistance (human nature often resists change) and few are bothered by some of the older ones and they are often used in a half-joking manner (e.g. ‘never say die,’ ‘sink or swim,’ ‘nip and tuck,’ ‘low man on the totem pole,’ . . .

And why do they do it? I like your two thoughts:

1) “Is it perhaps that we suspect that the speaker has abdicated all responsibility to think about what they are saying?”

2) “Or perhaps that we feel they are attempting to claim for themselves a wisdom, wit or linguistic genius that they clearly do not possess?”

Ken – November 22, 2015

Re: When is a cliché?

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Nov 25, 2015 5:13 pm

When you get to know almost anybody reasonably well, you discover the existence of certain words or expressions that tend to set their teeth on edge. But these expressions are not the same for each person, and it is possible that not everyone who identifies a set of annoying locutions considers all of them to be clichés.

For me, the cliché is a rather nebulous concept that covers a lot of territory. Quite a few of what I think of as being clichés are in circulation as complete sentences, not merely as individual words or phrases.

Besides all having overuse as a common factor, they seem to fall into several different categories. They can be:

1) Trite commonplaces that give the impression that the speaker is trying to sound cleverer than they probably are, especially when they are claiming to quote someone whose intelligence cannot readily be questioned. One that someone emailed me this morning is a perfect example:

"Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result".

2) Commonplace opinions/religious views/propaganda masquerading as certainties, when they are anything but. For instance:

- "Everything happens for a reason". (Almost everything has some sort of cause, but not everything necessarily has a reason [or purpose].)
- "God never gives anyone more than they can handle".
- "It'll be all right"/"You'll be OK". (This one is often said to someone who is seriously hurt or even dying.)
- "Well, someone's got to do it, haven't they?"

3) Utterances that are meaningless, either because they are just parroting a meme that happens to be current (e.g. "Netflix and chill"), or they are worn-out catchphrases ("Didn't 'e do well!", "You talkin' to me?").

4) Pompous/needlessly verbose expressions:

- "At this moment in time"
- "...in any way, shape or form"
- "When all is said and done, ...."
- "See the light of day" (Your example)

In sum: for me, a cliché can be any thought or form of words — especially one in common circulation — that lacks any or all of:

- useful purpose or function
- originality
- truthfulness
- mindfulness/responsibility on the part of its utterer.

It can also be any or all of:

- pompous/moralizing
- too obvious to be worth stating
- redundant/repetitive

In other words, just like the notorious question of what constitutes pornography, the nature of a cliché is hard to define precisely, but I recognize 'em when I hear 'em.

Yes, I have a dislike of clichés. Do I sometimes utter them? Of course — though I wish I didn't.

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