Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 4 August 2013

Clichés by Mary Smith

I‘ve been thinking a lot about clichés recently. As writers we know we must ‘avoid them like the plague’, try to come up with different ways to describe the heroine’s ‘peaches and cream’ complexion and the hero’s ‘rugged good looks’.
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?

13 comments:

  1. Gosh Mary, what a good post! I do try to work very hard at finding original phrases (though sometimes, I confess, it's a matter of going through it at the end to winkle them out). It can be quite hard work, finding an original way of saying something quite familiar to us all.

    I loved the list, but don't want to pick any single one out. In business, there's a game called word bingo, devised to enliven dull meetings and conferences. Delegates are given a list of clichéd phrases (think out of the box, blue sky thinking, go the extra mile etc etc) and tick them off when they are used. Yell Bingo! when your list is complete. Passes the time...

    Question: 'teeth on edge' - is that a cliché or just a good description? (Grins.)

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  2. Definitely a cliche, Jenny! Should have put quotes around it. I like the sound of your word bingo - something which could be adapted to be used a writers' group maybe. It is hard work finding original ways to say something, which is why the would-be memoirist was so cross with me because he had said exactly what he wanted to say!

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  3. Oh, I just love Salvador Dali's (alleged) comment.....:)
    I get away with cliche (can't do accents on this programme for some reason, so please forgive) in dialogue where I have a very strong character who is, perhaps, a bit opinionated.
    Great post....will FB and Tweet...:0

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    1. Thanks, Linda, I also love the Dali quote. Clever to use cliche as a way of defining your character - and the reader knows it is the character NOT the author who is using them!

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  4. Found your post, Mary, and so glad I did. As I'm writing historical romance I'm wrong-footed by clichés from two sides. As the writer, I have to constantly be on the alert for any phrase that didn't exist in my chosen time so choosing a cliché could be both lazy and wrong. As the hopeful reader of crits about my published work, I'm constantly screaming into a pillow when the expression, 'bodice ripper', is used about it. May I say, no bodices were ripped...
    And yes, many students/new writers etc really do not get it.

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  5. Thanks for finding the post, Anne. I hadn't thought of the extra layer of complicaiton cliches give historical novelists but of course you have to be sure a phrase was already in use at the time about whcih you are writing. I suppose some phrases must go out of fashion as well.

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  6. Love this post, Mary - what a fool that aspiring writer is to ignore your valuable advice! The list is too long to pick one cringe-worthy cliché - and no doubt there are some I didn't know were regarded as a cliché now! That's the trouble with apt phrases - they're too good.

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    1. Thanks, Rosemary. It's a great list, though, isn't it? I shall be referring to it often.

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  7. I love your post Mary, and the website. Although some of the expressions I don't understand - does that mean they're not cliches for me? I really like the word 'Badonkadonk'. But what does it mean?

    I have a horror (cliche?) or using cliches in my writing, like Jenny I find I have to go through a ms later to try to remove them. Sure I fail.

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    1. Gill, I had no idea what Badonkadonk means so I Googled it. Here's the urban dictionary definition: An ‘ebonic’ expression for an extremely curvaceous female behind. Women who possess this feature usually have a small waist that violently explodes into round and juicy posterior (e.g., 34c, 24, 38).
      Example in a sentence: Her badonkadonk made a brotha pop several wheelies.
      It's perhaps not an expression we'll use in our fiction - or even in speech!

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    2. Oo er. No don't think I'll be using it. But good to know!

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  8. Excellent post, Mary. I think the real value of clichés lies in their ability to give us the chance to fabricate apparently witty variations on familiar themes. I'm sure you can think of plenty but just one (very feeble one) that occurred to me as I was reading was 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a visit to any website except that of Ryanair'. Rubbish, I know, but you see what I mean.

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    1. Thanks, Bill, glad you enjoyed the post. And your witty variation on a journey of a thousand miles is not rubbish at all.

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