Along with adjectives and adverbs, the poor old cliché comes in for a lot of stick.
A cliché is a platitude, a figure of speech which has been so overused that it has lost its original meaning and relevance and is no longer effective. Often humorous, these trite expressions would have been considered original and loaded with meaning when first used. Clichés are often derogatory, but they are not necessarily false or inaccurate. In his autobiography, ‘Moab is My Washpot,’1997, Stephen Fry says, ‘It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.’
They’re clever little things; readymade idioms often summarising lines of description in one pithy phrase that everyone understands because they form part of our cultural fabric. They can also have an implication which is different from its true meaning. For example, ‘do you think I’m made of money?’ implies just the opposite.
We all accept that over-use of clichés exposes lazy and unimaginative writing. It is considered a mark of inexperience and shows a lack of originality. The conundrum for the writer is that it is its very popularity that has led to the cliché being frowned upon, shunned in polite writing circles. Use one at your peril, seems to be the advice. They’re too vulgar, too common, too familiar.
But sometimes, a cliché can be the most appropriate expression. Why reinvent the wheel? Because we are creative writers and our language is constantly evolving, that’s why. Falling back on tried and trusted idioms, no matter how tempting, no matter how precisely they fit, will advance our cause not one jot.
Did you see what I did there? Unconsciously dropped in tried and trusted. It’s difficult to avoid and the synonyms facility on my computer is coming up empty. I should be using my imagination to find another description, a better turn of phrase. There I go again.
So, is there ever a place in modern writing for the cliché? Used sparingly, they can succeed, but stretching our inventive muscles will always be preferable. Good writers avoid clichés with vibrant and original phrasing
Taken to task about using a cliché in a short story for the writing group, I responded with this tongue in cheek offering.
Once upon a cliché
‘It really doesn’t matter,’ Jessica said, picking up the pieces. One day we’ll come across another one, I promise you.’
‘Into every life a little rain must fall,’ said Tony, without fear of contradiction. He liked the look of Jessica, whom he had just met in the garden, contemplating the broken fragments of a particularly garish garden gnome. ‘Would you like to see my etchings?’
‘Wild horses wouldn’t drag me,’ replied Jessica. ‘I didn’t get where I am today by falling for your dubious charms. Familiarity breeds contempt,’ she sneered. ‘You’ll have to go back to the drawing board or it’ll all end in tears.’
‘There’s nowt so queer as folk,’ said Tony, in a triumph of style over substance. ‘So near and yet so far.’
‘Don’t talk to me in clichés,’ Jessica begged. ‘It’s all Greek to me.’
‘A leopard can’t change its spots,’ Tony replied. He was on a roll. There was never a dull moment in his life and he wasn’t one to let sleeping dogs lie. Truth was often stranger than fiction; suffice it to say that Tony had his work cut out for him when he decided to swim against the tide.
‘A change is as good as a rest,’ he argued. But Tony and the truth made strange bedfellows. Still, it’s better to have loved and lost, he thought, looking on the bright side.
When push came to shove, Tony wasn’t backward in coming forward. It was difficult to keep a good man down. The pretty blonde promised transports of delight and in the heat of the moment, Tony rushed in where angels fear to tread. There’ll be hell to pay, he thought, typically making a drama out of a crisis. But it’ll be better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
He examined the pieces of gnome. They were beyond repair and he decided to make a clean breast of it. ‘A fool and his money are soon parted,’ he admitted. ‘But there’s always jam tomorrow. With a little help from my friends we’ll soon be back to square one.’
The blonde bombshell seemed to recognise the unvarnished truth. ‘Money can’t buy you love,’ she warned. ‘Never a borrower or a lender be.’
‘Whatever,’ said Tony, suddenly losing the will to live. He had been going to make Jessica an offer she couldn’t refuse, but decided against reaping the whirlwind. However, it appeared that she was about to bite off more than she could chew.
‘Let’s stop beating about the bush,’ she said, lighting a cigarette and leaning back against the pergola in a mist of silver smoke. ‘Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?’