August 1st, 2007

People for the Responsible Use of Cliche

Hey, I do not love the weak and over-used expression any better than the next Effective Writing teaching assistant–so little do I love them that I won’t list any here. But there are some *strong* expressions that I think can stand over-use and, indeed, I would not wish to do without. Orwell damns the table “leg” as a dead metaphor: once an implied comparison with the actual limb of an animal, “leg” is still the best thing we’ve found to call those things that hold the table up. And while “best wishes” is neither unique nor denotatively expressive (the best of *what*?) connotatively it forms a lovely shorthand for all those nice things we hope for for people we don’t know very well.

Shorthand is another way of saying short*cut*, I guess; cliches are really just a form of verbal cheating, saying something that isn’t really an explanation, and trusting the reader to fill in the gaps from all those other times s/he heard it. I do not in fact know what Cupid’s actual bow looked like, but I do know what a girl whose mouth is described as one is supposed to look like. And it is the latter that’s useful to me! It’s not a joy to hear/read “avoid like the plague,” “easy as pie”, “in the long view,” etc (great, now I *am* listing them) but they *are* clear. Sometimes people just want to get their point across and they don’t care how felicitously.

And then there’s a second case, and that’s old cliches. How long after one has fallen *out* of use might we resurrect it as new again. If it were 1644, you wouldn’t want me to bother you about my beloved’s gleaming eye-rays, but it’d be pretty cool in modern realist fiction, wouldn’t you think? The hoarfrost chill, Maypole tall–I didn’t come up with them, but they are kind of nice and surprising in 2007, in my opinion.

And don’t even get me started (bad standup comic cliche!) on my real favourite: ancient aphorisms! Ooohhh, “A stitch in time saves nine,” “Lest said, soonest mended.” “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.” “Back in a tetch.” Tell me you’ve heard those already this week and I’ll want to read what you’re reading.

Responsible use is always called for, of course–we all have pet phrases that we beat to death (mine at the mo’: “I’m on it,” “Dude!”, “at the mo'”). The trick, of course, is to make it new every time by really thinking about the words and the context, instead of just leaping at the shortcut. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, natch, but I try to keep aware. Which I think makes me a responsible cliche-user and therefore entitled to continue. Or this might just be a really rambling form of excuse/apologia.

Judge not lest ye be judged.

You know you are so beautiful when you run

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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