Friday, November 13, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Famous Cliches

Nobody hates cliches more than poets. Yet cliches do what we are trying to do in our poems: create condensed, memorable, useful metaphors. In this fun article in the Boston Globe, writer James Parker takes us through the history and function of cliches, the phrases we (to use a cliche) love to hate.

As Parker points out, "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."

The history of the word cliche comes from old printing techniques... "So the cliché was an object, and a useful one: a concrete unit of communication that minimized labor and sped things up."

Cliches grease the wheels of the government... "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 cliches range from the petty to the profound... "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?"

The author also chooses two cliches (the one about free lunch and the one about the tango) that describe the range of his "entire psychological and ethical structure." I'll have to think now about what mine would be. And what are yours?