General English

Media Studies

  • noun a phrase or word that is overused and has therefore lost its original effectiveness or power


Origin & History of “cliché”

Originally, French clicher meant literally ‘stereotype’ – that is, ‘print from a plate made by making a type-metal cast from a mould of a printing surface’. The word was supposedly imitative of the sound made when the mould was dropped into the molten type metal. Hence a word or phrase that was cliché – had literally been repeated time and time again in identical form from a single printing plate – had become hackneyed.

Idiom of “cliché”

A cliché is defined as a stereotyped, or hackneyed, or trite phrase or expression. Many idioms and other phrases become clichés through over-use, and others have derived from once-fresh and striking literary quotations (and just as often from misquotations).

Eric Partridge (1940) describes the main criterion of a cliché as ‘its commonplaceness, its too-frequent employment, rather than its phrase-nature…The excessive use, not the phrasal quality, determines the cliché’. Sir Ernest Gowers (1954) defines it as ‘a phrase whose aptness in a particular context when it was first invented has won it such popularity that it has become hackneyed, and is used without thought in contexts where it is no longer apt’. He adds that ‘it is by definition a bad thing, not to be employed by self-respecting writers’.

Following Partridge and Philip Howard (1984) and other experts, there are four main categories of cliché:

1. over-used idioms;
2. non-idiomatic, hackneyed catch-phrases;
3. over-used quotations and catch-phrases from foreign languages;
4. over-used quotations from English literature.

Partridge claims that at least 80 per cent of the cliché ‘corpus’ comes under headings 1 and 2. A few examples of each must suffice, although category 1 is of greatest relevance in the context of this dictionary.

1. Over-used idioms
In his listing of over-used idioms, Partridge lists expressions like at daggers drawn, behind the scenes, bolt from the blue, darken the door of, lead a dog’s life, leave the sinking ship, know the ropes, set one’s hand to the plough, stick to one’s last, stick to one’s guns, take pot-luck, etc. Betty Kirkpatrick (1996) lists similar phrases, among them acid test, add fuel to the fire/ flames, armed to the teeth, be all ears, any port in a storm, tied to the apron strings, cost an arm and a leg, head and shoulders above, hive of industry, horns of a dilemma, jockey for position, etc. Now-rare and old-fashioned expressions such as set one’s hand to the plough and stick to one’s last remind us that, in cliché, we are dealing with style, an area where there are no absolutes. Just as some expressions are said to become clichéd, they can and do also move out of cliché status.

At most, with over-used idioms such as these, it is probably good to be aware that some people regard them as clichés, and therefore to use them deliberately – whether for allusion, or for humorous or other effects. A few idioms are marked as ‘usually or often clichés’ in the main dictionary.

2. Hackneyed catch-phrases
The line between an idiom and a catch-phrase is a fine one, on which experts disagree. Partridge lists items such as add insult to injury, armed to the teeth, any port in a storm, blissful ignorance, call of the wild, cheer to the echo, dim and distant past, fate worse than death, nip something in the bud, salt of the earth, second to none, etc. Kirkpatrick gives similar expressions like beyond the pale, in cold blood, do someone proud, Dutch courage, jam tomorrow, jobs for the boys, point of no return, plot thickens, that would be telling, there are ways and means, without more ado, word to the wise, etc.

3. Over-used quotations and catch-phrases from foreign languages
Although Latin still supplies the biggest stock of clichéd idioms in English, it is arguable that their number is now dropping away from cliché status as a result of the rapid decline of Latin in our education system. French is the other main source. Here are a few:

LATIN: ab origine, deo volente, deus ex machina, genius loci, in flagrante delicto, mutatis mutandis, nil desperandum, persona non grata, pro bono publico, saeva indignatio, sic transit gloria mundi, status quo, sub rosa, terra firma, arma virumque cano, et tu, Brute?

FRENCH: bête noire, bon mot, carte blanche, cause célèbre, coup de grâce, cri de coeur, entente cordiale, fait accompli, faute de mieux, mot juste, pièce de résistance, plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

ITALIAN: basso profundo, la dolce vita, lingua franca, prima donna.

GERMAN: Schadenfreude, Sturm und Drang, Weltgeist, Weltanschauung.

4. Over-used quotations from literature in English
It is perhaps wise to be a little more precise and refine this heading to say that it embraces over-used snippets, allusions, part-quotations and misquotations. These include, pre-eminently, the Bible, especially the King James Version, whose cadences have put down very deep roots in English. The following selection of idiomatic cliché-quotations is the merest smattering, from six random sources.

THE BIBLE: Strain at a gnat, Swallow a camel, Render unto Caesar, Beware of false prophets, No room in the inn, Fishers of men, The woodworm and the gall, All is vanity, The righteous shall flourish.

WILLIAM BLAKE: Ah, sunflower weary of time, Everything that lives is holy, Tiger, tiger burning bright,/In the forests of the night, England’s green and pleasant land.

ROBERT BURNS: Man’s inhumanity to man, A man’s a man for a’ that, The best-laid schemes (o’ mice and men), Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race, Facts are chiels (that winna ding), We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,/For auld lang syne.

H W LONGFELLOW: Footprints on the sands of time, I stood on the bridge at midnight, Life is but an empty dream, Sail on, o ship of state, A hurry of hoofs in a village street, Ships that pass in the night, Under a spreading chestnut tree.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Murder, most foul, My salad days when I was green in judgment, A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse, O thereby hangs a tale, Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought, But answer made it none, I am…doomed for a certain term to walk the night, O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth.

W B YEATS: I will arise and go now, I hear lake water lapping (with low sounds by the shore), Too long a sacrifice (can make a stone of heart), Cast a cold eye (on life on death), In dreams begins responsibility.

Although nearly all commentators are disparaging in their remarks about clichés, they also tend to agree that clichés can be useful, that they do sometimes express ideas that would be hard to express otherwise (especially with a measure of succinctness), that they are not invariably trite, and that sometimes they are the best way of saying what you want to say. In which case, it seems to me, use them. They are part of the vast cupboard of the English language, and to lock that door and throw away the key would be cutting off your nose to spite your face (cliché?! – touché!). As Fowler says, ‘The hardest-worked cliché is better than the phrase that fails…Journalese results from the efforts of the non-literary mind to discover alternatives for the obvious where none are necessary…’

To describe an expression as a cliché is to make an accusation, which is no real part of lexicography. Before levelling the accusation, it is important to look at the context in which the expression is used and who is using it. Mature and gifted authors at the height of their creative powers tend not to trade much in clichés, certainly not of the throwaway variety. But when 10-year-old children write that ‘smacking children makes them put up their defence barriers’, or that someone is ‘as old as the hills’, or somesuch, they are checking out their command of English by exploring its many nooks and crannies. That has to be encouraged without qualification, and without reference to red herrings like clichés.

Like nostalgia, clichés are not what they were. We may still tend to avoid them in our creative writing classes, but they are perfectly acceptable currency in everyday speech and functional writing. Language nowadays is changing so rapidly that clichés hardly have time to get properly established, and one man’s cliché is often another’s ‘bon mot’. ‘Flavour of the month’ no sooner approaches cliché-hood than it is spurned as a fuddy-duddy term. Part of our frenetic urge to be up to date seems to ensure that yesterday’s lingo now gets scrapped very quickly indeed.