by Rachel Saltzman
It begins in middle school; writing skills are in a crucial stage of development, and so teachers are more focused on systematic writing such as essays, grammatical structures, and proper spelling. At this age, kids are taught what effective, tasteful writing incorporates, and which elementary techniques can be rushed to the curb for good. This is when ‘it’s raining cats and dogs,’ and other cute phrases that are found in children’s books, are banished from any and all forms of writing.
We all know (supposedly) what a cliché is, what it looks and sounds like. But why are clichés considered bad for writing? The common argument is that clichés and common tropes are overused, to the point where most casual readers cringe at the sight of one. If the goal of any writer is to craft a story, essay, or narrative using a unique and well-developed voice, then of course clichés can only impede the process. If these banal phrases, expressions, and ideas have long been exhausted, then where and when were they first used?
According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the word cliché is French, and derives from printing plates and moveable typing, specifically regarding the clicking sound made when the type sets were in use (technically known as stereotyping). The word was not associated with an overused phrase or idea until the first ‘novel’ statements were popularized for the first time. French poet Gerard de Nerval explained this best: “Le premier qui compara la femme à une rose était un poète, le second un imbécile,” or, “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.” What were once avant-garde expressions have now become unoriginal over repeated usage and passing time.
Yet, despite professional writers’ attempts to squash clichés, inexperienced writers are still drawn to them like moths. When they run out of clever things to say, or when they are not entirely sure how to express themselves, they default to the lines they’ve heard before. Casual speech is peppered with these clichés; sometimes we can’t even help ourselves, and we must describe our daily grind with common catchphrases or the same expressions that our grandparents used forty years ago (you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, after all). So even though we are lambasted for using overused tropes, why are even experienced writers still tempted to return to these basic lines?
We might not be so willing to admit this, but clichés do serve writers. They might not be the savviest of techniques at a writer’s disposal, but we can’t just push them out of sight and out of mind. Everyone starts at the basic level; mathematicians had to learn addition and subtraction before tackling quadratic equations, and writers practice simplistic sentences before moving on to fully-fleshed pieces. The same thing can be said for clichés in that they must be tackled before attempting more sophisticated language. Why do you suppose many children’s books use physical metaphors (hint: that’s cliché!) over abstract ones? Because the most common of metaphors are always the easiest to understand. Several scientific studies have concluded that humans use metaphors to make sense of the physical world around us. No wonder we have a better time relating to ‘a pit in the stomach’ than ‘the swirling, acidic abyss in my torso.’ Clearly, the first of these phrases is more directly related to general human experiences than the other, despite the latter sounding fresh and creative.
They may be rendered boring from repetition, but these once vibrant and inventive phrases offer more than just simple understandings of our world. Many of the clichés that have survived through speech patterns once had additional meanings behind them, ones that made them relevant for the time period in which they surfaced. These are usually the less concrete sayings that rely more on initial meaning than their modern translation, such as ‘to bite the bullet.’ This phrase stems from the days of field surgery, when the use of anesthetics was unheard of: “A surgeon about to operate on a wounded soldier would give him a bullet to bit[e] on to distract him and make him less likely to scream.” When this phrase is used now, it implies that the receiver of the phrase must tough out whatever difficult situation they are going through. However, regardless of this widely understood implication, that doesn’t make the phrase any less unsettling to imagine. A little more humorous example is the grandmotherly phrase, “the cat’s pajamas.” This saying was coined in 1920s America to describe something of the highest quality, but it most likely originated from early 19th century English tailor EB Katz, “who apparently made the finest silk pajamas.”
Our very mature selves are prompted to argue, “Well, we are not children!” or “This doesn’t make clichés any more acceptable!” True, but everyone was a child at some point. Not even the greatest storytellers are born with an innate sense of ‘good’ writing. As we grow, we learn, and hopefully, we read as many books as we can get our grubby hands on to see for ourselves what makes an excellent read. We should also keep in mind that taste changes over time, along with views on what is dull versus creative. In addition to acknowledging what was once considered the epitome of expressive literature, having background information on the origin of these texts can give us a more appreciative perspective on writing techniques that have come before us. So instead of automatically dismissing the passé, take a moment to realize that your brand new quote that is getting everyone’s attention will fall out of fashion just like everything else.