Tired Clichés and Fine Familiar Phrases


A few weeks ago LinkedIn invited me to contribute to some teaching materials for writers. The subject was avoiding clichés. As usual, I found myself objecting: it’s true that a badly-placed cliché can stop a reader cold, but there are also occasions when nothing is quite as satisfying as a hoary old saw.

“Cliche” is an old term from the days of letterpress printing. A typesetter, laboriously setting single letters into a frame, might fix several words that often appeared together into a single block — literally, a cliché — to save time. No one actually sets type anymore, but the practice of fixing and repeating phrases proliferates, in speech as well as writing. No less a writer than Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) kept a record of those fixed, unexamined conventional wisdoms that circulated in his own time. He found them annoying. (They were posthumously collected and published as the Dictionary of Received Ideas, 1911-1913). Among the memorable things that appeared in his Dictionary were two entangled entries: one for “photography,” a fascinating new technology in the 1840s — and another for “painting”. Under the entry for “photography,” we read that it will replace painting, and under “painting,” that it will be replaced by photography.  It’s a tidy short circuit, a bit of cognitive paralysis, blocking any fresh inquiry into photography or its relationship to painting. And in fact the idea that photography is a form of realism persists today, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (realism: the conviction that an image can and should represent reality was a central, if doubtful ideal of of mid-nineteenth-century French painting.)

In any case, the teaching materials on LinkedIn advise writers to avoid such small, familiar expressions.  Fair enough. They tend to be boring, at a minimum, but worse, to block a free circulation of language. A bit like a blood clot in a vein or a wet wipe in a sewage system, they gum up the works. They offer quick-fixes, detours around the  confusions, contradictions, and mysteries that make up one’s life, or to say it differently, a bit of readerly and writerly insulation against any sense of obligation to think, or even feel deeply and creatively.

But are they always bad?  I keep wanting to insist that there’s another side, a store of set phrases that definitely are not paralysing, but that rather provoke us to think again, more deeply, more creatively. Only we don’t call them clichés.  Maybe we call them poetry, or lyrics, or just great writing. They may be just as fixed as any cliché, but they expand, enhance, lift banal events up to a broader context.  I’m thinking of phrases that may operate on a global scale, e.g. the Biblical “Do unto others…” , as well as those that live in a particular language, e.g. “…thereby hangs a tale” (a phrase to make you fall in love with English!).  Tiny communities of speakers, too, teams or families, build stores of fixes phrases.  In my family, for example, “you can’t learn any younger,” will surely outlive all of us.

Fixed phrases can’t be simply embraced or avoided. They need to be, first, recognised, then respectfully examined, in some sense diagnosed, and treated accordingly. If it really is a cliché, fine, avoid it or, try to dissolve, erode, degrade it, as you would a blood clot.  Some phrases, or even single words have become knots of confusion — minefields of conflicting meaning. For me, “art” is distinctly dangerous terrain, with meanings ranging from harmless self-indulgence to pompous absurdity to a synonym for civilisation. Some phrases are dull, numbing bastions of neutrality, “climate change,” say, as opposed to “impending disaster,” or “save the planet” as opposed to “preserve human illusions”. Such a phrase as “corporate feudalism” challenges, “senior moment” reassures…  Re-use them or not? Writers decide: is a set phrase boring? destructive? memorable? Stimulating? In the end, writers are, for better or worse, the people we entrust with our languages, the ones who will either gum up the works or give us expressions that help us recognise ourselves, share, remember and evolve in a world that is disconcertingly new to all of us.

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