In Praise of the Cliché
One journalist decides this stylistic foe isn't so bad after all
In their abecedarian days, all writers are taught to abhor clichés. (Of course, this hasn't stopped them from using clichés like there was no tomorrow.) "Exhausted tropes, numb descriptors, zombie proverbs, hackneyed sentiments, rhetorical rip-offs, metaphorical flat tires, ideas purged of thought and symbols drained of power--the cliché traffics in them all," writes Boston Globe correspondent and Atlantic contributing editor James Parker. "[A] cliché is intellectual disgrace"--or so conventional literary wisdom would have it. But Parker argues that clichés really aren't so bad. In fact, he'd like to see a little love for the linguistic tchotchkes:
Let’s consider the origin of the word. For 19th-century typesetters, a cliché was a piece of language encountered so often in the course of their work that it had earned its own printing plate--no need to reset the individual letters, just stamp that thing on the page and keep going. So the cliché was an object, and a useful one: a concrete unit of communication that minimized labor and sped things up ... No one can say with complete certainty what a cliché is. To me it might be a cliché, to you it’s an adage. Or a catchphrase. Or a salty bit of slang ...
I sometimes think that my entire psychological and ethical structure, such as it is, falls somewhere between "There’s no such thing as a free lunch," and "It takes two to tango." Observations like these have been road-tested, times beyond number, and discovered to be sound. They are laden with experience, and yet somehow jaunty. Some witty individual must have coined them, somewhere, but they glow with the accumulated knowledge of the race. They are clichés, and they belong to you: as a speaker of English, they are your birthright. Use them proudly. And when life hands you a lemon, remember that it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.