Word of the week: Cliché

October 22, 2020 Tim Glynne-Jones

I came within a whisker of making ‘bun’ the Word of the Week, following a thought-provoking discussion over a Danish pastry (life is never dull). I was, quite rightly in my opinion, reprimanded for referring to said pastry as a ‘bun’ and it struck me as interesting that I should misuse a word like that.

But, on reflection, not that interesting.

So I stuck to plan A and plumped for ‘cliché’. Now, pay attention because there’ll be a test at the end of this article. Cliché is an interesting word and here’s why. Just about everyone knows that clichés are bad and should be avoided at all costs (and if you don’t know there’ll always be a self-righteous writer close at hand to tell you so), yet just about everyone uses clichés on a regular basis (including those self-righteous writers). That’s how they become clichés in the first place. It’s a Catch-22.

Cliché was originally a French printing term. Back in the 19th century, print type was set in a solid plate called a stereotype, ‘stereo’ coming from the Greek meaning ‘solid’. The ‘stereo’ in your sound system doesn’t mean ‘two’, it refers to the solid, 3D effect of the sound, not the fact that it comes through two separate channels as opposed to one (mono). I’m going off at a tangent now.

So, getting back to the point, French printers called their stereotype a ‘cliché’ – possibly because of the sound it made, possibly just because they were French – and hence, ‘cliché’ came to be used for a phrase or saying that has become set in stone. Any expression that gets used a lot is, by definition, a cliché, which is where the problem lies, because it’s generally the best, most inventive expressions that get used the most.

So why is it wrong to use clichés? There’s the rub. The simple answer is that it shows a lack of original thought. On the flipside of the coin, clichés can help to cut to the chase because their meaning is clear as day. ‘Singing from the same hymn sheet’, for example, is very evocative and gets its message across succinctly. But don’t go there on pain of death, unless you’re wearing an ironic bow tie and big glasses, in which case it’s expected of you.

The challenge for the humans among us is to strive constantly for new ways of saying things. And sorry, misquoting your clichés doesn’t count. ‘Step foot’? ‘Heart wrenching’? ‘Damp squid’? Don’t be silly. The bottom line is that the sparkling stream that is the English language becomes stagnant and sickly if we all keep using the same clichés. Shakespeare didn’t use clichés, he originated them. End of argument.

So, how many clichés can you count in this article?
First correct answer wins a bun.

You’ve read the blog, now buy the book. Word of the Week: Volume One (a collection of 52 words) is available in paperback from word-of-the-week.com