The art of the cliché

I learned the art of the cliché at my mother’s knee. She plays both sides of the fence, cliché-wise: she uses them both in normal conversation (“I’m fighting tooth and nail,” “In for a penny, in for a pound”) and also as a kind of family joke. We used to watch old movies and identify the most egregious examples and then make up entire conversations of hackneyed phrases.

The Scream“How do I know I can trust you?” “You don’t.”

“Are you afraid of me?” “No (pause) — of myself.”

“He’s not!” “I’m afraid so. He’s dead.”

“The natives are restless tonight.”

… and so on.

Now, clichés have merged with jargon to become the shorthand language of everyday. “That’s hot,” “… voted off the island,” “Go ahead: make my day,” “24/7,” are a quick way to show that the speaker is either up-to-date with popular culture/current business usage/pop psychology/whatever, or lazy and boring, depending on your point of view. If challenged, of course, you can always claim to be using it ironically.

As a reader, I want 90% original thought. I want language to strike me with its freshness. I want the satori moment.

Current jargon dates in a heartbeat: it should be used only when fictional characters are speaking, or maybe in writing that’s not expected to last, like newspaper columns. Proverbs, old sayings, vaguely remembered quotations from books or movies: all should be rigorously examined for value before being used.

Throwing in some language borrowed from other sources may be OK for the remaining 10%. We’ve got a rich heritage to draw on, dating back a couple of thousand years. But if the writer is citing the Bible or Shakespeare, it had better be both knowingly and correctly. Misusing phrases just doesn’t work for me. Classics like “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast” (William Congreve) have been quoted and misquoted to death.

There are no prizes for cliché-spotting in the above although you will note that, with my customary perversity, I threw a few in ironically.