The cliché and originalityThe use of the term cliché in the late 19c and throughout the 20c has been associated with a desire for originality of expression. Such a desire, however, is not much older than the term itself. Many stock expressions often currently described as clichés are part of a primarily oral process that facilitates fluency while speakers are thinking ahead to their next points or are wrestling with difficult ideas. Proverbs, because they are mnemonic formulas, help people pass on elements of oral tradition without needing or seeking to be novel or clever every time. Comparably, many common expressions derive from classical cultures (such as Greece and Rome) and much-admired texts (such as the Bible and Shakespeare's plays), and have become part of the language because they have long been highly valued, and acquire as a result a kind of proverbial status. Traditional approaches to education have also encouraged students to copy or quote the precise expressions of famous predecessors whenever possible rather than to seek to be original before they are ready. All such usages and formulas were admired precisely because they were unoriginal, and writers or speakers used them because they were familiar to their audiences. In such works as the Homeric epics, stock formulas served to maintain the rhythm of the verse and were mnemonically useful for performers and listeners alike. The phrase rosy-fingered dawn occurs so often in the Odyssey that a modern reader, accustomed to the idea of the cliché, might conclude that Homer was sloppy and unoriginal where in reality he was following the precise conventions of his craft. In making an assessment of various definitions of and comments on the cliché, Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (ed. W. Ward Gilman, 1989) observes:
We will offer only two suggestions. The first is that in all the use of trite, overused, stale, outworn, threadbare and such descriptors there is probably a connecting thread of meaninglessness. You might, then, want to base your notion of the cliché not on the expression itself but on its use; if it seems to be used without much reference to a definite meaning, it is then perhaps a cliché. But even this line of attack fails to separate cliché from the common forms of polite social intercourse. A second and more workable approach would be simply to call a cliché whatever word or expression you have heard or seen often enough to find annoying. Many writers, in fact, do seem to use some such rough-and-ready definition.
See JOURNALESE, METAPHOR, PLATITUDE, POETIC DICTION, QUOTATION, SHIBBOLETH, STEREOTYPE.
cli·ché / klēˈshā kli-; ˈklēˌshā/ (also cli·che) • n. a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought: the old cliché “one man's meat is another man's poison.” ∎ a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person: each building is a mishmash of tired clichés.