Any grammar guide or writing handbook will tell you that clichés are bad. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines a cliché as “a trite phrase or expression.” A former professor of mine was especially fond of telling his students to “avoid clichés like the plague.” Clichés are unoriginal, overused and often corny. But I’m not here to jump on the anti-cliché bandwagon. That would be, well, so cliché.
In writing, clichés often fail. Yet, when speaking, the right cliché can help us express what we really mean. Because clichés are so familiar and we share their meanings with others, they help us save words, and time. Why beat around the bush when you can hit the nail on the head with a perfect cliché?
Like fables, clichés sometimes offer important messages. Take, for example, “Actions speak louder than words.” Parents have repeated statements like that for centuries. When you can borrow someone else’s beautiful line, why struggle with your own? It’s impossible, for instance, to improve on Shakespeare’s, “To thine ownself be true.”
Some clichés have fascinating histories. According to “The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés,” when you give someone the “cold shoulder,” it refers to the custom of serving hot meat to welcome guests and serving a cold shoulder of a less desirable cut of meat (like a cold shoulder of mutton or beef) to guests who have outstayed their welcome. The phrase, “making a mountain out of a molehill” is a spin on the French version, “making an elephant out of a fly.”
What I like most about clichés is that they sometimes remind me of people I love. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” my grandma used to say. She charmingly sprinkled that and many other clichés throughout her speech. One of her favorites was, “It’ll never show on a galloping horse,” meaning that if you had a small flaw or imperfection on a piece of clothing or something, no one would ever notice.
My grandmother is gone now, but whenever anyone in the family repeats one of her endearing little phrases, we smile and think of her.
I ‘d love to hear about your favorite cliché. Have a nice day!
— Erika Weisensee is a writing mom. She lives in Milwaukie
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