I hate clichés. It seems as if you can’t pass two articles without passing four well-worn phrases, wearily looking out at you from the page.
- The Baltimore Sun worries something (it doesn’t matter what) could “go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo.” Without some caution, this phrase may be updated to "going the way of newspapers” before too long. (I’m ignoring the more obvious “need for speed” headline in the Sun because it’s an excuse to make you watch this.)
- Huffington Post, on the Wisconsin recall election, blares “Labor Lost,” a phrase first employed, to better effect, in 1598. If repeating a line makes one an idiot, as Dalí (supposedly) said, I’m not sure what 500 years of repetition makes you.
- The homepage of the New York Times looks to “shine a light” on non-dictionary words, ironically in an article that’s part of a “series about the art and craft of writing.”
- A Washington Post headline begins “Romney’s Solyndra,” providing a great example of the timely-yet-already-tired cliché of political debate, wherein one event is used as a mold to cast new news stories. The most egregious offender is, of course, naming any putative scandal by coupling some mildly related noun with “-gate” suffix.
- USA Today tells us the “Queen’s Jubilee celebration ends in royal style,” nicely providing the dreaded punny cliché.
- CNN generally doesn’t provide enough wordsmithing on its homepage to work up the sweat to produce a cliché. However, I’m compelled to link to the featured video of a cat helicopter, presented without comment.
Clichés are comforting and homey for both writer and reader. A foreign story becomes less so (“Hackgate” for the British phone hacking scandal), a confusing one more understandable (the 1% catch phrase). They are cultural shorthand, a shortcut that allows a writer to bring the full weight of truism to bear with a minimum of words. They’re efficient. They’re also lazy.
A cliché is like an old couch—broken in and comfy. Why leave its comforts for DIY seating? Taking a build-your-own approach to figurative language might result in something uncomfortable, difficult or even (gasp) challenging, to writer and reader alike.
Maybe a cliché is more like your parents' basement (you don’t want to leave), or a bean bag chair (tough to get out of), or using one is like watching "The Bachelorette" (mindless and morally empty, but you keep doing it). Why stick with the couch when there are so many better places to be?
It’s said that English has the most words of the major world languages, a fact I love (mostly because I enjoy using as many as humanly possible, on any given occasion).
The depth and breadth of our available vocabulary means that there is no nuance, no minor inflection or exaggeration that can escape our linguistic net.
There is no reason to rely on tools so old their original purpose has worn away. I don’t ride a horse to work, and we shouldn’t communicate in clichés. But hey, a look through my writing will probably prove I’m the pot calling the kettle black while throwing stones from my glass house, picking a bone when I should realize every cloud has a silver lining and what goes around comes around, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It is what it is.