Secret Mojo Dumbs It Down for You

August 29, 2006

Clichés are stolen souls

Filed under: navel gazing,Random Thoughts,writing — secretmojo @ 5:58 am

I like two Bad Things: rhetoric and clichés. Rhetoric because it is large, sweeping, and full of vision—until some pundit uses its power as an elixir to make his shortness taller. And clichés because they are such charmingly pithy phrases that everyone wants to go to bed with them.

Clichés get a bad rap. At birth, they are singularly powerful observations of truth: a blooming awareness in the mind. You can save nine stitches when you spend time on one. Hamlet was being cruel to be kind. And it’s true: the road less traveled is far more interesting. How? Let me count the ways…

But over time and over use, the pith of a once shiny phrase dulls, and we’re left only with the abstract idea, its words a train that delivers thought with no imagery. Overworked and exhausted, this memetic poetry becomes vernacular, hackneyed, “to be avoided.”

Ironically, the better the phrase, the more at risk it is for becoming overused. Sad that the most resonant utterings of mankind get filed under “bad writing” nowadays. It’s not their fault for being superlative! They were well-put at inception; what arrogance makes us believe that we can rewrite “water under the bridge” into something more poetic and sad? For such an “accomplished” playwright, I like to joke, Shakespeare sure did write a hell of a lot of clichés.

To let clichés play with my mind once more, I spent some time over at the Cliché Finder. I know there are better sites out there, but Cliché Finder retains the clunkiness of reader-submitted clichés, and sports a random feature that will throw them at you, ten per fistfull.

It’s instructive to read a cliché out of context, and honor its native essence. Most clichés are born smiling, and rekindling the life back into one is as simple as pressing your imagination into it.

For example. “Throw the baby out with the bath water.” This is terrifying.

“It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye”: is this not as well?

On the other hand (he lifts his left hand for contrast), Cliché Finder hosts some duds (bombs too weak to detonate) as well. Some clichés are entered incorrectly—“Eat your cake and have it, too”?—while some phrases are not clichés at all, but hackneyed jargon, common language, a play on clichés, or famous quotes. “Hunky dory” may be a popular phrase, but it is as much a cliché as “A-OK.” Which is to say, not at all.

So what is a cliché? In its looser sense, cliché could mean anything trite, from horror movie plots to the ubiquitously poached “war.” But I think a proper cliché must a) be a common phrase, and b) still hold wealth inside it. It can delight unsullied, imaginative minds—like those of children—still today: “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

The creator of The Cliché Finder, Morgan, offers a small treatise on the subject. I’m not sure I’m happy with his definition: “a metaphor characterized by its overuse.” Is “on the other hand” a cliché, then? What makes this phrase any dirtier than “However”, “in contrast,” or “but”? It is a metaphor. It has been overused. But is it really a cliché? I’d like to say “no,” because it has imagery, yet no insight.
It’s a tricky puzzle, defining what a cliché is. But I shall stick with my earlier definition: A cliché is a phrase so charmingly pithy that everyone has gone to bed with it. It can be a quote, but only if people do not use it as such. There can be no attribution, hidden or overt, that remembers the author. “All’s well that ends well” is a cliché. But “making the beast with two backs” is not. A cliché is poetry that has settled amongst the people, powerful beyond its author. Timeless, universal, and offering bon mots, a cliché, when cleansed of its patina of repetition, is free revelation for the masses.

It’s a diamond in the rough. A precious jewel, and—if eaten properly—food. For thought.



  1. I like your take on the cliche. You’re saying that at the end of the day, when everything is said and done, and the chickens have come home to roost, cliches are not really opium for the masses but the icing on the cake. Aren’t you?

    Comment by charlotteotter — August 29, 2006 @ 1:31 pm | Reply

  2. “You can save nine stitches when you spend time on one.”

    Great line!

    Comment by bein — August 29, 2006 @ 11:24 pm | Reply

  3. Bein: I have lived through that one; I confirm its truth. Lesson 2? Only experts knit in the dark.

    Charlotte, Ha! Exactly. If I look at them with fresh eyes, I’m tempted to offer them a new lease on life. Now, they may be the best thing since sliced bread, but man can’t live on bread alone–there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosphy. Therefore, clichés certainly are the stuff that dreams are made of, and while they’re not the whole enchilada, they sure can spice it up!

    Comment by secretmojo — August 30, 2006 @ 4:04 am | Reply

  4. Nicely done, SM. I enjoyed this article of yours very much, and your point is well taken. I hope you got plenty of traffic the day this one was published, because I believe many people would enjoy the truth of which you speak here.

    I have only ever had one problem with clichés: I inadvertently mix them up, using half of one with half of another or getting the second half wrong altogether. Leaves people staring at me blankly, wondering if they heard what they thought they just heard come out of my mouth. I try to avoid them only because of this, my own failing.

    I enjoyed your point though, about saying or listening to a cliché newly. My father taught me once when I needed a new dress for a dance but didn’t have the money to buy one that I could breath new life into a dress I already had and wear it as if it were new. I tried it, and it worked. Same thing is true for our beloved little friends, the clichés.


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  8. […] completely agree, both in China and elsewhere.  Cliches usually become cliches because they concisely express a truth and one of my favorites fits perfectly here: information is […]

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