Note: this paper was originally submitted for Philosophy 23: Meaning and Communication taught by Sam Cumming and TA’d by Esther Nikbin. Because I’m still not over cliché and think there’s a lot more to it than what I talk about in this paper, I’m currently writing another paper that goes more into cliché’s “thought stopping” capabilities and how this can lead to moral danger, among other things.
My interest in cliché started in middle school when I thought Shakespeare was a boring author because he lacked original plot. Of course, murderous Macbeth has to be crushed under his own hubris and Romeo and Juliet are destined to be together only in the afterlife. In the media age, these clichés had made their way into the children’s books I read to the cartoons on TV, and I felt like a sucker for being told an old, old, man in England can get away with using them and even being called the greatest for doing it. I might as well have been crowned the best literary critic ever to have lived in the 7th grade if I hadn’t been criticizing the very origin of the storylines I had grown to recognize, and resent, but I’ll argue I have hundreds of years of Shakespeare imitators to blame for my misperception.
Still, the question of what is cliché and what is not remains. How is cliché different than idiom? Are all resonant expressions or ideas destined to become cliché? The goal of this investigation is to the uncover the bounds that limit the application of the word “cliché” and differentiate it from other trite expressions that fill our language. In order to carry out this investigation, I consulted native English speakers, dictionaries, academic papers, and a book on brainwashing.
“Cliché” is not a word like “aunt” or “billionaire” that denotes a clear relationship or quantity of ownership. As a result, we are going to have to rely on less exact methods to pin down its meaning. Using to a survey I administered to (relatively few) native English speakers over the internet, a typical cliché begins to take shape. When respondents were asked to define “cliché” as they use it, several parameters were important. First, an overwhelming majority of answers invoked ideas of over-use through phrases such as “too much,” “too often,” and “too many people.” In order to qualify as a cliché to native speakers, the phrase in question must be notoriously ubiquitous in common language or in certain contexts. Examples given include phrases like “there’s plenty of fish in the sea” in situations about relationships, or captioning your old vacation photos on Instagram “take me back.” Second, speakers emphasized how clichés belie a sense of unoriginality in their users. According to one, these phrases become “cop-outs,” that are used in the English classroom to appear thoughtful without having thought. The phrases themselves are undeniably true to a fault, and consequently their use says more about the lack of knowledge of the speaker as opposed to any real understanding.
Dictionaries tend to corroborate these two main aspects of cliché, overuse and lack of real substance, gleaned from the intuitions of native English speakers. Definitions range from, “a phrase or opinion that’s overused and betrays lack of original thought,” to “a trite phrase or expression; also: the idea expressed by it,” but these definitions always invoke the two main pillars of cliché (Oxford English Dictionary; Merriam-Webster). A less authoritative source has also voiced her own opinion on cliché and defined it as “a metaphor characterized by overuse,” and even supplied her own cliché test. If you can begin a sentence, stop half-way, and then know the conclusion of it, then it is a cliché (Morgan). However, either by accident or design, this test includes swathes of phrases that the general population would normally regard as idiom and not cliché. An idiom, such as “read between the lines,” is defined as a non-compositional phrase, and although common, the phrase does not seem especially trite or meaningless, and thus wouldn’t be called cliché. While this test is inaccurate, it does begin to expose how speakers observe or ignore the frequency of certain words.
This image of cliché in the minds of speakers seems to be at odds with how we actually deploy the word. For example, the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned” is undeniably a cliché, but you are highly unlikely to encounter it as frequently now in the 21st century as in the 18th, when it was conceived and presumably more popular in common conversation. Indeed, some common phrases such as the aforementioned “read between the lines” and “bearing in mind” are not considered trite in the slightest, yet appear more frequently than established cliché (Dillon). ‘