We're all in this together, which is both a cliché and a defense of clichés. (And a song from "High School Musical 3: Senior Year," but let's set that aside for now.)
Despite their plague-like status among writers, certain clichés occupy a soft spot in my heart for their ability to be simultaneously profound and simple. We are all in this together! It makes me want to be a better human (profound), even as it reminds me that I'm not the only one delayed by construction traffic (simple).
"I hate clichés," says Chicago author Kim Strickland. "I've been known to throw books down in disgust when I find one. That being said, I kind of like, 'It is what it is.'
"It's the perfect excuse," she says. "Maybe even for a cliché. It just is. What it is."
See? Profound. And yet, not.
They also do something that good writing often does: They get the point across.
"A good cliché is succinct," writes Martha Brockenbrough in her book, "Things That Make Us [Sic]" (St. Martin's Press). "In just four words, 'he broke my heart' communicates oceans of sorrow that any postpubescent person can understand.
"If we take language seriously at all," she writes, "then we need to stop picking on expressions that help us understand each other so well, so quickly."
(We're all in this together!)
Then again, we asked Brockenbrough, who founded both National Grammar Day and the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, her favorite cliché and she, uh, demurred.
"I'd have a hard time defending a cliché in a novel or other creative work," she says. "The very best of those are great in part because they give us new ways to understand our experiences and feelings."
Sure. But isn't there just one cliché that you're secretly sort of fond of?
"That's like getting me to admit to a stash of porn beneath my mattress," she replied. "Hey, that's a cliché. Mattress porn."
Some of my favorite writers use clichés in a way that both capitalizes on their relateability and makes readers feel like they're in on the joke.
"I delight in the phrase 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,'" says author Brett Berk, who pens a delightful automotive column for Vanity Fair. In a recent article, headlined "Four-Wheeled Future: Ferrari in Bush, Ferrari in Hand," Berk tweaked his favorite phrase, even as he relied on its ability to make a point.
"There is an old Northern Italian expression that translates roughly as: A stallion in the hand is worth two in the bush," he wrote. "This is derived not from a desire for the local delicacy of polenta smothered in virile-horse ragú, but from the understanding that, for instance, the ability to drive a car—any car, really—with the black-and-yellow prancing horse on the nose is a treat far superior to the compulsively onanistic fantasy of imagining oneself sliding into the driver's seat of a highly desirable Ferrari that you are not actually driving."
See? Driving a Ferrari, even if it's not the 458 Italia, is better than imagining yourself driving a Ferrari while actually driving a Honda Accord.
"All too often, car lovers proclaim one or another vehicle that they've never driven to be superior to another vehicle that they've never driven," Berk tells me. "It helps synopsize this tendency in a delightfully undermining way. Which is pretty much all clichés are good for at this point."
(Also for getting people who don't give a whit about Ferraris to read a cleverly written cars column.)
The word cliché itself is derived from the French name for a stereotype block. If a word was used frequently enough, typesetters made a plate of it, rather than re-creating it each time the need arose.
"Originally, a cast obtained by letting a matrix fall face downward upon a surface of molten metal on the point of cooling," according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Which is essentially how we use clichés today—to convey a message with a tool that's at-the-ready and readily understood.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times