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?


  1. Hi Kat!! So fun to find a post of yours on my favorites list. Cliches are something I talk about with my students all the time, too. Funny how everyone runs screaming from them (and here, I mean ideas that seem like they must be cliched, or plots based on a tried and true notion) but in fact, a cliched story idea can work if you give it a fresh voice or twist because it's like in our DNA to accept these stories, and invest ourselves in those characters. We know them. They are us. And, also in dialogue, because it's human. I just try to avoid them in narrative, but sometimes, I'm just human works.
    Hope you're well. How's the new place??

  2. Fun post! And what can be even more interesting is taking those hackneyed phrases we've heard so many times as to become inured to them and actually stop and think about what they mean, look up their provenance, where that "concrete unit of communication" originated.

  3. I think the cliché is another tool in the toolbox. One can sometimes use them directly, or one can use them with a twist, e.g. "The blonde leading the blind" or something like that.