Dictionaries vary in particulars about the definition of cliché, but they all agree that a cliché is not a good thing.
Despite the low regard in which we all hold clichés, we all use them, certainly in speech, if not in writing. Is there a contradiction here? Yup.
Formally, a cliché is “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.”
It can also be defined as “anything that has become trite commonplace through overuse.”
Where did the word cliché come from?
Clichés earn their name by the fact of their frequency, and their frequency is testament to the way in which we readily find uses for them.
A cliché in its proper place does an effective job unobtrusively. We only find them unfortunate in contexts where something more powerful than a cliché is needed, and we recognize that the speaker or writer has thrown away an opportunity to be creative, taking the path of least resistance instead, inserting an expression that is familiar, probably concise, and unfortunately dead on arrival.
Imagine the writer of a letter to the editor undertaking the exercise of writing this sort of public letter for the first time: they probably have a couple of specific goals in mind. One is to maximize the possibility that the letter will be published. Another, related to this idea, is to sound convincing and authoritative. How might the novice letter writer achieve these two goals? One way is to try making the letter to the editor sound as much like other published letters to the editor as possible. And how is this accomplished? By copying phrases wholesale from other published letters to editors. Thus a small genre of clichés is born.
What are examples of clichés?
Here are a few clichés scooped up from some letters to the editor online:
- I read with great interest your article on …
- I read your article on _______________ and I had to put in my two cents.
- Your article should be required reading for women/members of congress/teenagers who drive (etc.).
- I must take issue with your article on ______________.
- Your article on ________________ brought tears to my eyes.
- Your article on ______________ was right on target/was very welcome/could not have come at a better time.
Are all of these really clichés? Perhaps some of them are formulas. But that’s a different article.
Can clichés ever be good?
However, without clichés, linguistic expression would certainly involve more effort. Clichés give us the liberty to slip in a ready-made phrase with the confidence that it will guide the reader or listener down the path that we have laid out for them. Without clichés we would miss the opportunity to find the point of common ground with our audience that comes from knowing they will recognize and identify with a commonplace way of expressing an idea.
But if all writers and speakers did this just as often as was desirable, and no more, the idea of cliché and its associations of overuse and ineffectiveness would never have arisen.
Clichés are usually the result of haste, lack of attention and care, and sometimes ignorance of the alternatives. Which is why they get such a bad rep.