Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

glass of spilled milk

Just don’t cry

At some point (in time, as people say, to distinguish from those points not in time), someone was thinking of something very, very good. It was so good, so superlative, that describing just how good it was presented a challenge. Perhaps the unknown person thinking about this tried the phrase “very good” but that still meant merely good, albeit enhanced by the word “very”.

Maybe then they tried synonyms, and the thing in question was “great” or “wonderful,” which was better, but still, these are fairly common words, and the thing was SO GOOD that common words were not enough. At that point, real imagination kicked in, and metaphors were used: good as . . . hmm, good as what? Good as a friend’s handshake. Good as cold milk. Good as . . . ah! Good as gold!

Now we have to use our own imaginations to remember that at the time this phrase had never been used before. Gold is a metal, extremely valuable, highly valued, and shiny and beautiful. Good as gold? Wow, good as gold. What a clever idea.

And so it was a clever idea—the first time.

Since that time, however, Jezus! don’t ever say that again. That phrase is old as dirt now, and you wouldn’t want to be caught red-handed using such a worn-out cliché. Part of what makes clichés so attractive is that there was a time when they actually were fairly clever or imaginative. Another part of what makes them attractive is that they require almost no thought at all, they just fall forward into the open air of their own accord.

But why not use a cliché? Why do I attempt to lay down such a haughty law? Really, it depends. If you truly like it, go ahead and knock yourself out, but I’ll cite two reasons, and if they mean anything to you, then you decide.

Most broadly, I’ll cite human psychology. It’s paradoxical when you consider how much humans yearn for the past, cling to tradition, and hate to change, that we also love newness. What strange brains we have, but it’s true. Newness entertains us, lifts us for a moment out of the repetitious tedium that makes up our life so much of the time. Part of that newness comes from language, and if you can say things in a new way, you sound more interesting.

More to the point for this blog about writing, to present yourself as a serious writer with a good linguistic imagination, you can’t just drag out an old kettle of fish to make broth with too many cooks or . . . I’m getting lost here. In fact even for people who care about fresh, interesting language, the mind is full of clichés.

Original language in writing does not happen because you’re such a phenomenal genius that every word you write will sparkle like the diamonds on a king’s codpiece. No sir. You’ll have clichés, but if you’re a serious writer who is willing to work, as you revise and notice that kind of language, you’ll slow down, think, put your head in your hands, sigh, go get a drink of water, come back and think some more, and eventually come up with a fresh way of saying what you want. If you don’t try to avoid clichés, then frankly, you look like a lazy writer.

Writing this blog entry, I found a website that said not to use clichés in writing, and they gave a list of almost 700 of them (seriously)—which they said not to use. I wondered if the writer who takes advice from that website is supposed to memorize the list. I thought of a use for them, however, and I include a selection below:

  • let’s talk turkey
  • all your eggs in one basket
  • big cheese
  • bring home the bacon
  • fine kettle of fish
  • no use crying over spilled milk
  • red as a beet
  • spill the beans
  • easy as pie
  • icing on the cake

I think we have enough there to make a meal. We can eat our words.

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