Misidentification of Cliché

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). ‘


Frequency of Phrase “A Penny Saved is a” From 1800 to 2000


Frequency of Phrase “Bearing in Mind” From 1800 to 2000

(Google Books)

The data supports this. According to Google’s analysis of books, the popularity of the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned” has been declining since the 1820s, but the phrase “bearing in mind” reached an all-time high in usage in the 1970s, as seen above. This is evidence against the idea clichés are overused phrases or ideas, and for a working definition that focuses on how salient the unoriginality, or “trite-ness,” of the phrase is to the hearer, regardless of how many times they have encountered it before.

This is the defining characteristic of cliché. Consider one of my earlier respondents who said clichés are “cop-outs,” and the OED, which claims clichés “betray lack of original thought.” The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has done research on cliché as a tool of thought reform carried out by totalitarian regimes, and has supplied his own definition. He says cliché is when, “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases easily memorized and easily expressed” (Lifton). To him, repetition is not what makes something cliché, but how well it reduces huge problems or ideas into simple phrases. This definition gets more into the essence of what makes a cliché, as to have a simple phrase that addresses a large, common problem is useful, and it will probably be repeated as often as a holder of the phrase encounters the problem.

Given what we know about how we deploy the word and what definitions, institutions, and fellow speakers supply to us, the meaning of cliché is slightly different than we believe it to be. Cliché as we use it leans more towards statements that conspicuously display a lack of thought as opposed to ones that are often repeated. The two share a large intersection, but don’t necessarily encompass the same phrases or ideas. This is why I (wrongly) thought Shakespeare to be cliché, but give no notice to the banality of phrases such as “bearing in mind.” Perhaps we’re in denial. There is much more cliché in our language than we care to admit, and thus reserve the term for the most egregious offenses to originality.



Dictionary.com. Cliché. n.d. Febuary 2018. <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/cliche>.

Dillon, George L. "Corpus, creativity, cliché: Where statistics meet aesthetics." Journal of Literary Semantics 35.2 (2006): 97-103.

Google Books. Google Books Ngram Viewer. n.d. 12 Febuary 2018. <https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=as+a+matter+of+fact&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cas%20a%20matter%20of%20fact%3B%2Cc0>.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China. UNC Press Books , n.d.

Merriam-Webster . Cliché. n.d. Febuary 2018. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cliche>.

Morgan. What is a Cliché? . n.d. 12 Febuary 2018. <https://westegg.com/cliche/definition.html>.

Oxford English Dictionary. Cliché. n.d. Web.