Monday, October 19, 2009

don't get caught dead

From the Boston Globe:
Let us now praise... the cliché — It’s concise, time-tested, and instantly familiar. What’s not to love? By James Parker, Globe Correspondent / October 18, 2009


WHO WILL SAY a good word for the cliché? Its sins are so numerous. Exhausted tropes, numb descriptors, zombie proverbs, hackneyed sentiments, rhetorical rip-offs, metaphorical flat tires, ideas purged of thought and symbols drained of power - the cliché traffics in them all. A lie can be inventive; an insult can be novel. Even plagiarism implies a kind of larcenous good taste. But a cliché is intellectual disgrace. The word itself seems to shape the mouth into a Gallic sneer.

For 19th-century typesetters, a cliché was a piece of language encountered so often in the course of their work that it had earned its own printing plate - no need to reset the individual letters, just stamp that thing on the page and keep going. So the cliché was an object, and a useful one: a concrete unit of communication that minimized labor and sped things up.

the mystical super-cliché at the heart of cliché studies: No one can say with complete certainty what a cliché is. To me it might be a cliché, to you it’s an adage. Or a catchphrase. Or a salty bit of slang. The very earliest examples of cliché, if you look at them for long enough, seem about to turn into something else. From the Dark Ages: “hither and thither.” Cliché or not? And how about Homer’s “bite the dust”?

Politicians, especially American politicians, are almost obliged to speak in cliché, for fear they will stray into that zone most terrifying to the electorate - the heady and unpredictable zone of original thought. Democracy, we might say, runs on cliché: on truisms, bromides, caricatured opinions, boiled-down ideas and statements that everyone thinks they agree with. Cliché implies the consensus without which we’d be shooting one another in the streets - and the more fragile the consensus, the grander and more magniloquently all-embracing the clichés must become.

Clichés ... belong to you: as a speaker of English, they are your birthright. Use them proudly.
My 11th grade English teacher introduced me to this slippery lit term. Miss Spicer. I liked her OK though she tended toward greenish teeth in the afternoon. We presumed breath mint staining, product of an attempt to cover maybe some lunchtime gin. She said cliché was hackneyed phrase, should be avoided at all cost. This confused us a bit; with our little experience, how were we to recognize any but the most flagrant?

I tried to come up with some visual examples. What more horridly appropriate than the smiley?

Or used more excessively than the kitten?

Or more devoid of meaning than the Che t-shirt?

{Cliché Che; source: tsirtbordello. I discussed the origin of this iconic photo a while back.}

Interesting links:

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