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You probably use more clichéd idioms than you might realise. ‘Put yourself in his shoes.’ ‘Are we going to address the elephant in the room?’ ‘This is the last straw.’ ‘Enough is enough.’ Clichés are a part of our everyday conversations, but does our overreliance on them hold us back from communicating and connecting more deeply with others?
The negative connotations of the term ‘cliché’ are almost built into its definition. The presence of clichés in literature is a sign of poor writing and places a text in the realm of ‘low culture’. But is it possible to revitalise a cliché by subverting it or deliberately employing it as a literary device?
Every cliché was once an original turn-of-phrase.
A cliché is a phrase or element of an artistic work whose originality and meaning have been diluted by overuse.
Clichés are short phrases that sound true and authoritative, making them persuasive and easy to repeat. Cliché phrases often articulate truisms or platitudes.
A truism is a statement that states an obvious truth, such as ‘it is what it is’.
A platitude is a statement that makes a conclusive-sounding moral statement like ‘good things come to those who wait’.
Let’s look at some cliché phrases that were popularised by Shakespeare.
Examples of common cliché phrases:
‘Love is blind’.
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit
(Act 2, Scene 6, The Merchant of Venice, 1605).
‘The world is your oyster’.
Why, then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open
(Act 2, Scene 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1602).
‘Forever and a day’.
But bid Bianca farewell for / ever and a day
(Act 4, Scene 1, The Taming of the Shrew, 1594).
Writers can also fall prey to describing things or people in clichéd ways.
Examples of cliché descriptions:
The term cliché can also be applied to overused storytelling elements, such as overused symbols, plot points, and character types in romance texts.
Examples of storytelling clichés:
Overused elements of artistic works are often colloquially labelled ‘tropes’. But in literature, ‘trope’ means a figure of speech.
Clichés can also be used as a literary device.
When a cliché is present in a text as a deliberate element – as opposed to being the incidental result of poor writing – the cliché can be regarded as a literary device, as a tool used by the author to create meaning rather than to dilute it.
Clichés can show a lack of original thought and personal conviction. They can be seen as an easy way out of coming to your own conclusion about issues.
By avoiding clichés, writers can come up with unique descriptions and plot points that help us see the world in exciting new ways.
Consider this description of the night sky in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922):
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit
(Chapter 17, Part 3, Ulysses).
Joyce combines unexpected words, such as ‘heaven’ and ‘tree’, with fresh, lively words like ‘humid’ and ‘fruit’ to create unique, vivid imagery.
Clichés can be a barrier to honest and profound communication and debate.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) argues that clichés are a dangerous form of expression because they hold us back from being engaged with reality:
Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality
(Hannah Arendt, Introduction, The Life of the Mind, 1977).1
Clichés are also seen as boiling down language and emptying it of its power. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1926 – present) goes so far as to say that clichés are a brainwashing technique employed by totalitarian governments. Clichés discourage people from critically examining their situations by providing oversimplified answers. Such use of clichés is called ‘thought-terminating clichés’.²
Depending on how it is used, the cliché ‘it is what it is’ can be seen as implicitly upholding the status quo and promoting complacency. This phrase seems to imply that individuals don’t have the power to change negative situations, discouraging further critical thinking and debate.
It is possible to effectively use a cliché if you counteract its lack of originality by using it in an original way. Authors may meaningfully use the cliché:
Let’s look at some quotes from literary works that use clichés in a meaningful way.
The play is full of witty statements, such as clever subversions of cliché expressions.
Divorces are made in heaven.
(Scene 1, Act 1)
This is a subversion of the cliché ‘marriages are made in heaven’, which mocks the repressive institution of marriage in Victorian times. This subversion also serves to characterise its speaker, Algernon, as frivolous and shameless.
The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.
(Scene 1, Act 1)
This is a subversion of the cliché ‘to wash one’s dirty linen in public’, which means to share one’s private problems with others. By swapping ‘dirty’ with ‘clean’, Wilde twists the meaning of this cliché to make fun of the ridiculous rules of Victorian etiquette.
The novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is about a middle-aged man, Humbert Humbert, who is obsessed with 12-year-old Dolores Haze, whom he calls ‘Lolita’.
In the novel, Nabokov uses clichés to show the shallow and twisted nature of Humbert Humbert’s obsession with Lolita:
Life is short. From here to that old car you know so well there is a stretch of twenty, twenty-five paces. It is a very short walk. Make those twenty-five steps. Now. Right now. Come just as you are. And we shall live happily ever after.
(Chapter 29, Part 2)
This quote begins and ends with a cliché, ‘Life is short’ and ‘we shall live happily ever after’. The second one characterises Humbert Humbert as selfish and deluded, as the young Dolores would not be happy with him. Nabokov’s use of clichés satirises the romance genre, where such clichés are often used sincerely.
Happy Days is a tragicomedy by Samuel Beckett, in which a woman, Winnie, delivers a long monologue while being half-buried in the earth.
Tragicomedy is a genre of drama that blends elements of comedy and tragedy.
Winnie never stops speaking, and her words feel empty, as though she speaks just for the sake of it, just to fill up time and stay optimistic about her life. She repeats cliché phrases such as:
this is going to be a happy day!
can’t be helped – (screws on cap) – just one of those old things – (lays down tube) – another of those old things – (turns towards hag) – just can’t be cured – (rummages in hag) – cannot be cured
Keep yourself nice, Winnie, that’s what I always say, come what may, keep yourself nice.
Ah well, what matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day, after all, another happy day.
(Quotes from Acts 1 and 2 of Happy Days)
Critics like Llewellyn Brown have pointed out that Winnie speaks in clichés. If we think back to the Hannah Arendt quote earlier, Winnie’s overuse of clichés shows her unwillingness to face reality. It seems that she has repeated her litany of ‘it will be a happy day’ so often that the word happiness has lost its meaning, but she still takes comfort in the familiar cliché. She shields herself from potentially depressing existential questions by taking comfort in what Robert Jay Lifton would call ‘thought-terminating clichés’.
1 Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (Harcourt, 1977).
2 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China (University of North Carolina Press, 1989).
A cliché is an overused phrase or element of a text that has lost its originality, impact, and meaning. Cliché phrases sound true and conclusive, which makes them persuasive and easy to repeat.
You can identify a cliché by paying attention to common expressions. If you have heard an expression many times, it is likely to be a cliché.
One way to avoid clichés in writing is by combining words in an unexpected way. This is how James Joyce describes the night sky in Ulysses (1922): ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit’. Joyce combined different words in a unique way, which was much more evocative than a clichéd description of the moon and the stars would have been.
An author may use a cliché as a literary device. The author can subvert the cliché through irony or by moving words around to turn the cliché on its head. The author may also use clichés in a character’s dialogue or narration to show how they think and to build character. Clichés can also be used to make a point, for example, about how difficult it can be to communicate with one another.
You can write a non-cliché love story by avoiding or subverting overused character types and plot points, such as love triangles. You can also avoid or subvert the conventional romance happy-ending where the main characters finally become a couple.
What is the definition of a cliché?
A phrase or element of an artistic work whose originality and meaning has been diluted by overuse.
What is a cliché phrase?
What are some examples of clichés popularised by Shakespeare?
What is a cliché storytelling element?
An overused storytelling element, including overused symbols, plot points and character types.
How can clichés be used as a literary device?
When an author uses a cliché on purpose, it is a literary device. They can use it as a tool to create meaning.
What are the problems and dangers of clichés?
What is a thought-terminating cliché?
A thought-terminating cliché is a term coined by Robert Jay Lifton to describe the way that clichés can provide oversimplified answers that discourage further thinking.
How do authors meaningfully use clichés?
How does Oscar Wilde use clichés in Importance of Being Earnest (1895)?
Wilde turns clichés on their head by changing words in them. For example, 'divorces are made in heaven'. Wilde uses clichés to
How does Vladimir Nabokov use clichés in Lolita (1955)?
Nabokov uses clichés like 'Life is short' and 'we shall live happily ever after' to:
How does Samuel Beckett use clichés in Happy Days (1961)?
The character frequently uses clichés, such as, 'can't be helped', 'just one of those old things' and 'this is going to be a happy day'. These clichés are used to:
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