May 19, 2019

Rethinking Clichés

“One thing is certain about clichés: you wouldn’t be caught dead using them. They are widely scorned as signs of debased thought, a lack of imagination and the absence creativity. Thankfully, if you reflect for just a moment on something you’re about to say or write, you can usually avoid falling into the trap. Or can you?

By ‘cliché’, I mean an overused and trite means of expression, ranging from tired sayings to worn-out narratives – things that are much more common in our writing and speech than we assume, or are willing to admit. While we tend to condemn clichés harshly, the scholar of rhetoric Ruth Amossy at Tel Aviv University has shown that they’re in fact crucial to the way we bond with and read other human beings. ‘How have you been?’ – ‘Not bad at all!’: in our daily interactions, clichés represent a communicative common ground, by avoiding the need to question or establish the premises of speech. They are a kind of a shared mental algorithm that facilitates efficient interaction and reaffirms social relationships.

So when did the cliché become such a sin of human communication, a mark of simple minds and mediocre artists? Awareness of the shortcomings of conventionality is certainly not new. Since antiquity, critics have pointed out the weakness of trite language patterns, and used them as fodder for biting parodies. Socrates, for example, was an expert in mocking and unmasking empty, automatic conventions. In Plato’s dialogue Menexenus, he gives a long, mock funeral oration, parodying memorial clichés that overpraise the dead and provide justifications for their loss. Much later, Miguel de Cervantes’s character Don Quixote is captive within the heroic clichés of medieval chivalric-romances, which cause him to fight imagined enemies (thus creating the still-in-use ‘tilting at windmills’ cliché). William Shakespeare in Sonnet 130 wittily rejected the use of clichéd similes to praise one’s beloved (eyes like the Sun, cheeks as roses), stressing the banality and inauthenticity of such ‘false compare’.”

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