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Julia Cresswell on clichés

Julia Cresswell - photo writer author

Let’s hear it for the cliché

Print journalism is littered with clichés, but is it necessary always to avoid them like the plague? No, says the defender of clichédom


We all know we should not use clichés. Indeed, if I had a tenner for every time someone had made the crack to me about avoiding clichés like the plague I would be, if not rich, at least able to take an extraordinarily good holiday. I have done numerous interviews on the subject since writing a book on clichés and I have noticed a regular process of change in the language of interviewers as they speak to me. Somewhere near the start you get an “Oh dear, was that a cliché?” Then as time progresses you notice that the language gets dryer and dryer. Not only does anything that might be classed as a cliché disappear, but idioms and other forms of collocations disappear. In extreme cases the interviewer is hardly able to communicate at all.

There is a simple explanation for this. While no one wants to use clichés, none of us is really clear what a cliché is. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that while clichés may be poor style they are efficient forms of communication. That is why they become clichés. As Terry Pratchett puts it in Guards! Guards!, “Clichés are the spanners and the screwdrivers in the toolbox of language.” Take a really crude example of journalese, such as a headline “Tiny tot in tug-of-love”. We may deplore the style, but there is no denying that readers know exactly what they are getting, and are instantly in a position to know if they want to go on reading.

The second main problem with defining clichés is that they are both contextual and subjective. If you put the expression “run for your life” in a television drama, it is likely to be a cliché. If you are on a beach and see a tsunami sweeping towards you, it is exactly what you need to yell. It would get the legs moving without any need for thought or analysis.

This lack of thought or analysis is, I would argue, one of the key features of what makes a cliché, but in this case it is a good thing. Another way in which clichéhood is contextual is that it depends on the level of communication in which it is used. Except in the hands of an expert bore, there really is no reason not to use clichés in casual conversation, if they get across what you want. The situation is further complicated by the conscious cliché, used for deliberate effect. This is when we write something like “In the dim and distant past, when I did O-levels…” The audience knows we are using a deliberately clichéd expression, and knows that we are using it self-deprecatingly, to convey far more than the fact that time has passed. There are considerable numbers of these conscious clichés that no sophisticated writer would ever use except as conscious clichés, and which can be used to set the tone and mood of a piece. This, again, I would argue is an illustration of the effectiveness of clichés as a form of communication, but it does raise the question of whether such uses should count as clichés.

There are, of course, negative aspects of clichés. You and I, dear reader (conscious cliché, see above), may be immune to the clichés of politicians, although we may not be immune to the effects on the blood-pressure factor of some of the expressions. Those that particularly make mine rise at the moment are the fashionably patriotic “probably the best in the world” with the variants “envy of the world” or “world-class”, all of which make me want to bounce up and down shouting “Lies! Lies.” To these can be added “wake-up call” and “level playing-field” and “best practice”. You will all have your own candidates. However, there is no doubt that in the hands of a skilful user political clichés can be effective. If a really good speaker uses a combination of clichés to stir the blood, it can become positively dangerous. But the danger for us lesser mortals (conscious cliché again) is more that of slipping into the easy way of putting things, particularly when writing at speed.

Sports writers are notorious for their clichéd writing, but they have the excuse that there is a very limited number of ways of saying “he kicked the ball”. More insidious is the way certain subjects seem to demand certain turns of phrase. Those writing stories involving food feel the need to have a good meal “washed down by” a fine wine (a pet hate of the editor of this journal). But this again raises the question of defining what is a cliché, as it can be argued that to wash down a meal with a drink of choice is simply the jargon of the restaurant reviewer or food writer rather than a cliché, although obviously lazy in day-to-day reporting.

Where do clichés come from? The origin of most, it must be admitted, is unknown. Some are extraordinarily old. To “bite the dust” is found in Homer, while couplets such as “might and main” and “hither and thither”, admittedly now archaic, go back to Old English. Many more, such as the comparison of chalk and cheese, are medieval. Many have been adopted from the special language of particular groupings. Sport is a common source, particularly horseracing (win hands down; first past-the-post; neck or nothing; head start) as is daily working life (more than my job’s worth; jobs for the boys; all in a day’s work; dirty work). The armed forces are a particularly rich source (with flying colours;abridgetoofar;D-Day;loudandclear;and,morerecently,shockand awe).Military images can crop up in the most unmilitary of contexts, such as the innumerable slimming articles dealing with the battle of the bulge.

However, even though some of them are very old, there is a considerable degree of turnover in clichés. The oldest dictionary of clichés I know of is EricPartridge’s,firstpublishedin1940.Although most of his entries are still current candidates, a good number would never get into a modern collection. There are many Latin tags such as rus in urbe – a town residence, yet with many advantages of the countryside – that would be discarded. There are expressions that simply seem archaic rather than clichéd, such as “leonine locks” or “the abomination of desolation”. There are even some that are totally obscure – does anyone recognise “leather and prunella”, glossed by Partridge as “some thing to which one is quite indifferent”?

As we might expect from the power of the expressions, literature is a common source of clichés. Hidden quotations can give interesting insights into the past popularity of authors, deservedly or undeservedly, little read today. Dryden gives us “a blaze of glory”, as well as providing a wonderful summing up of why clichés are so popular in his couplet from Absolom and Achitophel:

But far more numerous was the herd of such
Who think too little and who talk too much.

Dryden’s antagonist, the Duke of Buckingham gives us “the plot thickens”. The once popular Sir Walter Scott either coined or popularised “a far cry from”; “beautiful vision”, “pride and joy”, “give someone the cold shoulder”, “play the game” (although Newbolt really popularised this), in addition to reviving “wend your way” and introducing the concept of the “unsung hero”. The even more neglected Longfellow is the source of “ships that pass in the night”, “babe in arms”, and “into every life a little rain must fall”. Politics and politicians are also a fertile source either as coiners or popularizers. Sometimes they are closely associated with their quotes; at others their connection has been lost with time, as in the case of Sir Robert Walpole’s “let well alone”, Disraeli’s “on the side of the angels” and Asquith’s “wait and see”.

Similar phrases from abroad are Theodore Roosevelt’s “lunatic fringe” and Hitler’s “heads will roll”. More closely associated with their perpetrators are Harold Macmillan’s “little local difficulty” and “wind of change”. “Selling off the family silver”, based on part of Macmillan’s 1985 Tory Reform Group speech, looked to be fading somewhat, but has been much used of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Harold Wilson popularised the term “sleeping giant” and his “a week is a long time in politics” has become a formula phrase, with “week” and “politics” being replaceable by the user’s choice of terms – journalists, particularly print journalists, can start a cliché forest fire once they latch on to a phrase. Wilson’s “white heat of technology” is in decline. Despite the speed of technological change, the “white heat” is probably too industrial to fit the laboratory-like conditions associated with modern technology.

Modern politics provides us with a couple of expressions that can give us some insight into how quotations pass into the language as clichés. It is difficult to predict whether or not something is likely to enter the language. It the case of political quotations, it seems to help if it is said in particularly striking circumstances and if there is something slightly unusual about the language. While I was working on my history of clichés I was lucky enough to spot a potential examples in the making when, on the 23 May, 2006, John Reid, then Home Secretary, announced that his immigration service was “not fit for purpose”. This had all the ingredients. It was said under highly unusual circumstances: a minister admitting failure! As a result it received enormous publicity and was heard or read by a high percentage of the population. It also was nigglingly odd in its grammar. “Not fit for” followed directly by a noun, as in “not fit for consumption” or “not fit for service” is usually based on the pattern of abstract noun formed from verb. Not fit for purpose does not fit this pattern. To me, at least, it cried out for an “its” or “the” in front of “purpose”. The omission helped it stick in the mind. Another advantage it had for passing into the language is that its context suggested it was already a well-established expression, perhaps Civil Service jargon *. This legitimised its use as a turn of phrase, rather than a quote. Having detected this potential cliché, I kept a eye on usage. It’s first use was Confined to stories connected to Reid’s speech. Then, to my disappointment, it disappeared. However, after a couple of weeks of what turned out to be linguistic digestion, it returned used in other contexts, and is now a well-established shorthand way of summing up a situation – in other words, a cliché.

As I write there seems to be another candidate for clichéhood – lipstick on a pig. Even in the USA, where the expression has been in use for some 30 years, Barack Obama’s speech made linguistic ears perk up, and the language mavens get to work on its history. There is a long one of pig and beauty comparisons: the oldest and best-known being: “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear”, which goes back to the 16th century. In the18th century we find: “A hog in armour is still but a hog”, describing someone in inappropriately fine clothes; and in the 19th: “A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog”. Pigs and lipstick were being linked in the 1920s, but the form used by Obama dates only from the 1980s. The expression was widely used in Texas politics in the 1990s and had reached Washington by the beginning of this century. At the time of writing, it is still being used by UK writers with direct reference to the Presidential election, as in this passage from Charles Stross’s excellent blog on a writer’s life:

“I am trying desperately hard not to dive into the murky waters of U.S.politics in this blog: not so much a case of putting lipstick on a pig, as one of trying to teach the pig calculus – all expressing my opinions would achieve would be to get all parties concerned covered in mud (and to annoy the pig).”
(see Charlie’s Diary http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/index.html )

By the time this piece is published it will probably be clear whether it will have entered the general language. And the people who decide will be journalists.

This is a version of an article which appeared in British Journalism Review
vol.19 no.4 December 2008. See http://www.bjr.org.uk/

* Since this was published I have been informed by Col. Mike Jiggins that 'it was an expression used many times, certainly since the 1980s, about military equipment - usually as a critical term used by the military of equipment procured by the bureaucracy of the MOD's Procurement Executive (now DES) which met its paper description but did not do what was operationally required of it.'

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