By Loren Ekroth, PhD
Some of the most common clichés in current use include “threw under the bus,” “at the end of the day,” “with all due respect,” “the fact of the matter is,” and “don’t cry over spilled milk.” I’ve heard public figures use “end of the day” as many as 10 times in a short interview. Ouch!
You learned in high school English classes that a cliché is “a trite, stereotyped expression that has lost originality and impact by long overuse,” as in “strong as an ox.” Most likely your teachers discouraged the use of clichés on aesthetic grounds, recommending instead that you use fresh and lively language.
How about excising clichés on practical grounds so you don’t lose the impact of your messages? That’s another downside of using clichés.
A Cliché Spoof
Decades ago humorist Frank Sullivan, writing for the New Yorker as “Mr. Arbuthnot, the cliché expert,” spoofed the breezy language of his time (1935-1952) in light-hearted interviews. An updated version by English Professor Ben Yagoda shows the flavor of these conversations:
Q: Mr. Arbuthnot, since your last testimony, have you continued to follow the world of clichés?
A: I’m all over it, 24/7.
Q: Would you mind answering a few questions to establish your expertise?
A: Whassup with that? Sorry if I’ve got that deer-in-the-headlights look, but I’m shocked, shocked. Here’s my deal: I’m a world-class talking head. I’ve made my bones and I’ve got all my bona fides. When you chatted me up with this, you didn’t give me a heads up that I had to reinvent myself.
Q: I apologize. I am merely following the charter of this committee.
Q: . . . You will certainly be a valuable witness . . .
A: Sweet. And I’m sorry for going postal a minute ago. I promise I won’t be high maintenance. With all the media here, I can see where this could be a win-win. Besides, I want to give something back.
Q: Have you noticed any new clichés recently?
A: Big time. Bottom line: Arguably, this is the cliché’s 15 minutes.”
As Old as Shakespeare
You get the idea. Clichés start out as fresh and vigorous, became fashionable, then faddish, and finally, faded. They persist because they’re easily dispensed from the tongue or pen without much thought. Some still in use such as “dead as a doornail” are as old as Shakespeare.
The beauty of using fresh, striking language is that it gets a listener’s attention, triggering images and feelings that engage the mind, stimulate creative processes, and are remembered. Doing this takes more mental effort and the intention to have impact, but in our hurry-up world of breezy interactions, such effort is in short supply.
Our poets and novelists offer us the best repository of fresh language, plus a few columnists and commentators. They show us what language can do to get us thinking more vigorously. I remember with admiration the eloquence of the late radio-television commentator Eric Sevareid (1912-1992). His language was pure public poetry without a sniff of clichés.
When you are selective in choosing the persons you read and listen to, you will find refreshing expressions and can create new ones of your own. As the late movie producer Sam Goldwyn once said so memorably, “Let’s have some new clichés.” And as my friend, professional speaker, and entrepreneur Tom Antion said, “No one ever lost credibility by being interesting.”
Go on a diet from using stale phrases and serve up gourmet words.
Reprinted with permission of Dr. Loren Ekroth, aka “Dr. Conversation,” publisher of “Better Conversations” weekly newsletter. Free subscriptions at www.conversationmatters.com
Which clichés tickle your fancy? Which would you like to ban from the English language? Please share here — and any new clichés you’ve come up with, too!