As a writer, I have fought long and hard to remove cliche’d words and phrases from my writing. It’s an uphill battle, as you will see if you ever take up the challenge. One of my first writing teachers handed out a mimeographed, crooked old piece of paper with a list of a daunting number of phrases and word combinations considered cliché. Besides the tried and true, old stand-bys, the subtler examples (rock hard, steely-eyed, slippery slope) showed me how such ready-made phraseology is a hallmark of lazy thinking.
Writing is hard. There are so many cheats and short cuts, but they all add up to hackneyed writing. Readers can tell. Readers eyes glaze over, and that response is never the reader’s fault.
Today I found these in an essay draft:
grass is greener
expand my horizons
and the ones included in this blog post I have purposely left in to show you the depths of my cliché problem.
Fearing that perhaps my thinking is hackeyed, I cut most of them. But I confess I love clichés. They are slightly ridiculous and strangely apt. Today I told a friend, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” We both laughed, as it was literally relevant to her situation. This somehow elevated the usage to the meta-comical, provoking a self-satisfied giddiness, like any well-placed pun or other low-brow verbal effect. Sure, I’m a word nerd.
The sociological interest, however, goes deeper. I’m fascinated by these turns of phrase, and what they may reveal about our culture and way of thinking, making connections, and categorizing.
I often deconstruct common concepts in my writing. The cliché is similar to stereotype in that it exists as a kind of shorthand. There is a kernel of truth to it. It’s a good jumping-off place. It takes on the air of symbol, that we know at a glance, and ignore, but that which can show us the contours of our beliefs, our interests and motivations.
Cliché is like found meaning. It has existed in culture long enough to be understood implicitly. It’s part of the human condition. The human condition—another curious concept that is more like a rhetorical tag than a defined thing.
Knowing that clichés help us work as little as possible to understand each other, I suppose that’s why they exist. But taking all the little events, how do they add up to a life? How do our words add up to meaning, or alter it, as a pebble plunked into a pond? How do they affect us? and how can we make our expression of ourselves more original?