Sunday, 4 August 2013
Clichés by Mary Smith
It was ‘the longest journey starts with a single step’ which set me off. It was how someone had begun his memoir. He had asked me to read and critique it. What he really meant was for me to read his work and tell him it was wonderful but by the time I’d underlined a dozen clichéd expressions in the first few pages I couldn’t oblige. He had had some pretty amazing life experiences, which would make for an exciting memoir but he had reduced everything to cliché and stereotyped descriptions. Every time he referred to his mother, he called her ‘me dear ol’ mum’. Every time!
When we discussed his manuscript a couple of things became clear. One, he didn’t understand what a cliché is and two, even after I had explained, or thought I had, he still was not going to change that opening line for anyone – it said exactly what he wanted to say. That’s the thing about clichés, isn’t it – they say what we want to say, and once upon a time each of what we describe today as clichés was original, clever, telling expressions.
A dictionary definition: A cliché is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel… The term is frequently used in modern culture for an action or idea that is expected or predictable, based on a prior event.
Apparently Salvador Dali said: “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.” A very clever statement – but it is not original. Dali swiped it (tweaked it slightly) from a French poet, Gérard de Nerval who said it first.
The expression, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, is attributed to Lau Tzu, Chinese philosopher and father of Taoism. It was probably considered a clever analogy and very profound way back then, now it comes over in the context of my would-be memoirist as lame and unoriginal. I do wonder what Lau Tzu would think if he knew how his comment is used – overused – today.
I wonder if any of us will ‘coin a phrase’ so fresh and clever and original it will be used by other writers for years to come!
I discovered (Wikipedia and other online dictionaries – isn’t the internet wonderful) the word cliché come from the French word for a printing plate cast from movable type – which is also called a stereotype. When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly, as a single slug of metal. Cliché came to mean such a ready-made phrase.
And have a look at this wonderful site which lists hundreds of clichés and over-used expressions. I love the comment regarding clichés in the intro to the collection: They make for great book titles, but lousy writing.
Which ones set your teeth on edge?