As writers we know we must avoid clichés ‘like the plague’ and make sure we come up with exciting new ways to describe the heroine’s ‘peaches and cream’ complexion and the hero’s ‘rugged good looks’.
It was ‘the longest journey starts with a single step’ which set me off. It was how someone had begun his memoir. He had asked me to read and critique it. What he really meant was for me to read his work and tell him it was wonderful but by the time I’d underlined a dozen clichéd expressions in the first few pages I couldn’t oblige. He had had some amazing and exciting life experiences, which would make for a terrific memoir but he’d somehow reduced most of it to clichés and stereotyped descriptions. Every time he referred to his mother, he called her ‘me dear ol’ mum’. Every single time.
When we discussed his manuscript a couple of things became clear. One, he didn’t understand the concept of a cliché and two, even after I had explained, he was still not going to change that opening line for anyone – it said exactly what he wanted to say. That’s the thing about clichés, isn’t it? What once was an original, clever, telling expression becomes a kind of shorthand, the meaning of which everyone understands having heard it or read it countless times.
A dictionary definition: A cliché is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.
Salvador Dali said: “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.” A clever statement – but not original. Dali swiped it (tweaking it slightly) from a French poet, Gérard de Nerval who said it first.
The expression, in its original form, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, is attributed to Lau Tzu, Chinese philosopher and father of Taoism. It would have been considered a clever analogy then, now in the context of my would-be memoirist’s beginning it seems lame and unoriginal. I wonder what Lau Tzu would think if he knew how his comment is used – overused – today.
I wonder if any of us will ‘coin a phrase’ so fresh and clever and original it will be used by other writers for years to come.
I discovered (Wikipedia and other online dictionaries) the word cliché comes from the French word for a printing plate cast from movable type – which is also called a stereotype. When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly, as a single slug of metal. Cliché came to mean such a ready-made phrase.
And have a look at this wonderful site which lists hundreds of clichés and over-used expressions. http://suspense.net/whitefish/cliche.htm I love the comment regarding clichés in the intro to the collection: ‘They make for great book titles, but lousy writing’.
Which ones ‘set your teeth on edge’?