The Cliché

clicheLike every subject to do with writing, this is a theme that comes up ‘time and time again’; there that didn’t take long did it?

The origin of the word cliché is, not surprisingly, French. The French first used the word to describe the sound that a matrix, or a mould with letters on it, made when being dropped into molten metal to make a printing plate. Well, the meaning has certainly come a long way since then.

There are various interpretive descriptions of ‘the cliché’, depending on which dictionary or thesaurus you consult, but this one describes it well enough for most readers to grasp its meaning: an original saying, phrase, work of art or part thereof that, through continual use, becomes trite and unimaginative; or this, the cliché can be an expression imposed by conventionalised linguistic usage.

Like most people, I grew up using clichéd terms that I thought were ‘cool’ at the time; even the word ‘cool’ is a cliché ‒ originating from Miles Davis (Jazz musician/composer) in 1956 with ‘Birth of the Cool’ ‒ meaning an indefinable quality that makes something or someone extraordinary; however, through over use it became hackneyed before most of you were born. A couple of clichéd terms in current use by teenagers today and that particularly annoy me are, ‘Oh my God!’ or ‘That is sooo gay!’ (what does that even mean?)

If you think about some of the clichés still in use in writing or everyday speech today, although they came about through logical processes, they can be totally obscure; and yet we know instinctively what they mean:

• ‘In the clink’: in a jail or prison. This goes back to the 12th century when there was a prison on Clink Street in the city of London, England.

• Minding your “Ps” and “Qs”: to be on your best behaviour. The English beer tankard was purchased over the bar in a pint or a quart size and if a customer became unruly, the bartender would say, ‘mind your Ps & Qs’.

• Copper or Cop: referring to a policeman. During the 19th century, the word ‘cop’ meant to grasp or catch; when a policeman caught a criminal the term ‘copper’ was used (in the early English crime films they even had the criminal getting caught saying, ‘It’s fair cop’).

• And here’s a real little charmer… oops cliché again…To have a frog in your throat: a sore throat. In the 12th and 13th centuries, doctors used actual frogs to treat a patient who suffered from a severe cough. With the frog actually placed inside the patient’s mouth it was thought that the secretions of the frog coated the throat and helped to heal it. Burp, delightful.

Clichés are often idioms. Idioms are figurative phrases with an implied meaning and although it is tempting at times to use a well-known phrase (a cliché) that can paint a general picture in a few words: ‘The pot calling the kettle black,’ or ‘Stop and smell the roses’; the use of clichés in writing, speech, or argument is generally considered a mark of inexperience, lack of originality or just plain laziness.

I do sometimes slip one in, but clichés are one of my editor’s pet hates and she very rarely lets me get away with it: I’ll find a line through the phrase and a note saying, ‘You can do better than this!’ There are places that I have insisted they stay in: chapter titles, I feel, are excellent places to use clichés, and in one book in particular I deliberately used a cliché for every single chapter heading.

Except under certain circumstances, I have to agree with my editor; I find that if I come across a well-worn cliché in something I’m reading it ‘sends a shiver down my spine’ and if there are more than a few it can soon ‘take me to the brink’, totally ruining the book for me and ensuring that ‘I never darken that author’s door again’, ‘so to speak’, ‘if you know what I mean?’ ‘Nudge, nudge, wink, wink,’ and you know what they say about ‘a nudge being as good as a wink to a blind horse.’ So basically, ‘you can bet your bottom dollar’ that clichés are something ‘I try to steer clear of’, ‘and you can take that to the bank’.

Author: T.D. McKinnon

Scottish author T.D.McKinnon ‘Survived the Battleground of Childhood’ in the coal mining communities of Scotland and England before joining the British Parachute Regiment at fifteen where he remained for five years. He has trained in the martial arts for most of his life and had five Karate schools in Scotland before immigrating to Australia. He writes across several genres and has completed five books that are all available as eBooks. He lives in Tasmania, Australia with his wife. Learn more about T.D.McKinnon at his website and Amazon author page.

36 thoughts on “The Cliché”

    1. Yes, Massimo, there are some characters who just can’t help themselves.

      1. Oh and, ‘where are my manners’, Thank you so much for dropping by, Massimo.

  1. When I write my books I try to avoid cliche’s except when they are appropriate in dialogue. However I do use them when when I am on Facebook or other ‘chatty’ media. This is another example of knowing the rule and deciding, with intent, when to break it. It is an aspect of writing we must remain aware of.

    1. Let’s face it, Yvonne, people, characters actually use clichés quite often in general; probably much more often than most writers would dream of emulating them in there character’s dialogue.

      Thank you so much for dropping by, Yvonne.

  2. Great post, TD. As you rightly point out, the cliche is a great little short-cut for when we’re time poor. I’d much rather reply “Sure!”, than have to type out “Yes, I agree with you and will act on your suggestion”. However, it does cause all kinds of problems for writers. Cliches became so because, once, they did a great job of describing something succinctly. In exposition at last, a writer must make an effort to avoid them. Cliches remain handy in dialogue because we can use them to provoke or prevent sympathy for a character.

    1. Quite so, Chris; and, depending on what era you are writing about, they can help to create the atmosphere of a certain time and place. Like Yvonne said: know the rules, know when and where to break them.

      Thank you so much for dropping by, Chris.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more, Melissa, they dogs don’t come much older than this old dog and I’m happy to learn something new every day.

  4. Something is wrong with me! I adore cliches. Here’s why: The reader knows exactly what the author means so one can get on with the action. I loathe reading an entire page of emotional dump when ‘he broke down’ or ‘she leaked crocodile tears’ gets it said. My motto is write what fits the character or the story. I once had two intelligent characters having a conversation about kuru (mad cow disease as we know it). A reviewer said, “Real people don’t talk like that.” Lesson learned! Anyway I don’t write for the literati who love nothing better than to pick apart a novel just to show off their own intelligence or lack thereof. I’m reminded of all the intellectuals who sneered at Ayn Rand’s books. I had no idea I was supposed to read her books an an intellectual. I read all of them on a 10th grade education. The woman knew how to layer words on a page. I can still quote the opening paragraphs of The Winter People and Atlas shrugged. I also personally know the head of an English Department of a major university who wrote a coming of age book without a single cliche. Took him 4 years to sell 2,000 copies. He added it as one of the books in his curriculum–sold it to all of his students. Just saying…


    1. Whole-heartedly agree with you. Granted, you don’t want to over saturate your work with them, but if it’s appropriate and gets the point across, then go for it.

    2. Like everyone commenting today, you have a point, Jackie. To respond to your comment I’ll simply quote part of someone else’s comment:

      “This is another example of knowing the rule and deciding, with intent, when to break it. It is an aspect of writing we must remain aware of.”

      Yes, I do realise I’ve now turned Yvonne’s comment into a cliché.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Jackie.

  5. Writers read differently than most readers do. We have pet peeves about our craft, and this can help us to become better writers or make us overthink, and therefore, stymie our creative juices.
    T.D., you make a valid point that the use of a cliché is one that the author must make with care. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject. 🙂

    1. ‘Or make us overthink, and therefore, stymie our creative juices.’ I seem to have heard that somewhere before:

      ‘At times I now tend to overthink which sometimes gets in the way of what used to be my natural flow.’ Oh wait… that was me! Is it close enough to be considered a cliché, maybe?… Now I’m really overthinking!

      And you are so right, Lois, writers do read differently to readers who are not writers… ‘Viva la difference!’ Oopps, there goes another one.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting today, Lois.

  6. But those aren’t cliches. Calling a policeman a cop is usage, and so common and accepted that it’s a synonym. Cops haunting donut stores is a cliche.
    Many sources definite a cliche as a concept or idea overused to point of losing it’s meaning. And certainly not the case with clink or cop or frog in the throat.
    This is a tough shoulder to look over… trying to second guess what is just normal usage and what will bore people. Like most over-shoulder writing behavior, it just trips you up.
    In a Thomas Perry novel a detective says that a certain MO is a “cliche” and the main character says, “It’s a cliche because it happens all the time.”
    A good exercise might be trying to replace “a frog in his throat” with something “better”. It doesn’t help anything to put an iguana in his throat. But almost anything you say is going to be familiar, unless you consider it a big deal worth dreaming up a new term for.
    The ideal should be to create your own cliches rather than using off-the-rack ones. A writing with a good voice and imagination does this automatically, I’d say.

    1. Cop or Copper is a clichéd usage, Linton, as is half the English language I’m sure, but it is a cliché none the less, and one to which most people who use it have no idea how it came about in the first place. Writers like to know the etymology of words that seemingly make no logical sense, but most people don’t think in that way.

      Thanks for dropping by and contributing today, Linton.

      1. Actually, not at all. Cop is standard parlance. You can’t say it’s a cliche any more than saying “policeman” or “pig” is a cliche. That’s just not what the word means. Sorry.
        Copper is not very current, an antiquated term like “roscoe” or “gat”… but hardly a “cliche”. Cliche has nothing to do with etymology, actually. Not history, but whether or not a phrase or word is hackneyed. Saying “call the cops” is not a cliche. It’s just not.

        1. Firstly, Linton, my apologies for taking so long to return service; I find myself busier these days than I ever thought I would, or wanted to be, at my age but sometimes things just seem to turn out a certain way, even though I believe that I do create my own reality. Secondly, robust debate is supposed to be a healthy thing and so I won’t apologise for taking the opposition on this one again, Lin.

          One of the definitions of a cliché is, ‘A sentence or word that has lost its original meaning.’ The original meaning of a ‘Cop’ was being apprehended by a custodian of the law; the copper being the person apprehending and the person being apprehended would be the person being copped, hence the clichéd expression, ‘It’s a fair cop.’ The term then, over time, became associated with the person doing the copping; whether they were copping at the time or not they became the copper and eventually, through time, they became the cop but with no understanding of the original meaning; hackneyed before any of us were born: a cliché.

          1. It might fit that extremely narrow and not-widely applicable definition, but that’s meaningless as writing advice. Why should one not use “cop” in their writing? Because it’s hacknedy or overused? What, more than “policeman” The term “police” has come far from it’s original meaning, also. As have words like “gay”, “gun” most sexual verbs, “cool”, “he got mad”, etc, etc. Doesn’t make them “cliches” in any useful sense whatsoever. Are you saying that “cop” shouldn’t be used? That it will come off as stilted to readers? I’d hate to think so.

          2. It appears that we have run out of places to return serve, Lin, so I’m putting my last one in here. And so… Not at all, Linton, not what I’m saying at all. If I’m saying anything at all about writing tips, in regard to clichés, it’s the same tip I would give in regard most so called writing ‘rules’ ‒ for instance, don’t use ‘and’ at the beginning of a sentence, or be sure and use exclamation marks sparingly! ‒ and that is to be aware of the guidelines, even if it’s just to know when you are crossing those lines.

            I mean, personally, I would never use the term ‘cop’ but some of my characters certainly would. And in dialogue virtually anything goes: “know whi-a-mean inat?! which is in fact a Glaswegian cliché.

          3. It’s not a cliche. It’s a common synonym. In fact, it’s probably more used to describe police officers than any other term. Calling it a cliche is like saying that calling an automobile a “car” is a cliche, or calling an an a autobus a “bus”. That’s not what the word means, certainly not to writers.
            Try this simple experiment. See if you can find a single person who thinks the word “cop” is a cliche that should be avoided.

        2. You really are determined to have the last word here, Linton, aren’t you? Very well, I concede; don’t get me wrong, I stand by everything I say or write, but this ‘tongue in cheek’ article doesn’t mean enough to me to spend one ounce more of energy on.

          By the way, I have an uncle who thinks that the word, cop, is a derogatory term. And like all the other derogatory terms they would be better not used. He says that if people still called a policeman a policeman it would be more respectful, and if they were given more respect they might act with more honour, like they did when he was a boy in the 1930s in Scotland. Just someone else’s point of view, and you’ve got to respect that.

          Thanks Linton.

          1. It’s not a cliche.
            It’s not a derogatory word. It’s the word cops themselves most frequently use.
            Somebody deciding something is offensive doesn’t make it so.
            If you allow that to influence you, you’ll run out of words to use.

  7. Call me a rebel but an occasional cliché seems no big deal to me. In a Veterans writing class I once was called out by an instructor for said violation.

    Violation was as follows:
    (in regard to a night reconnaissance patrol on a rainy monsoon night in Vietnam)

    It seemed as though all we had to fear was fear itself. Well, that and about a hundred enemy soldiers only footsteps from our prone positions.

    A novice movie producer friend of mine found that to be humorous, as did I. in a sick sort of way.
    Some hard-core writers need to lighten up.
    Just an opinion from an amateur.

    1. Err if you want, and in some cases it’s necessary, just know when you are. I still think that originality is king.

      Thank you so much for dropping by.

  8. Cliches have their place in dialogue, as others have said, because people use then in conversation all the time. But in narrative passages? I’d rather rewrite the passage. But maybe that’s just me.

    1. I’m with you 100% on this one, Lynne.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Lynne.

  9. I like my writing to be original, but sometimes a descriptive phrase is best served cliche-d. When I write about my aliens, finding points of commonality between them and us is very difficult, especially if I want to show rather than tell. This is where a cliche comes in very handy. As humans we immediately understand a phrase such as ‘a shiver ran down its spine’ so if an alien feels the same thing, I’ve established an emotional connection.

    And as others have noted, real people use cliches in conversation all the time. They’re short-cuts, and I can’t imagine modern dialogue sounding authentic without them. However as authors, we need to find a balance between the common touch and originality, something that isn’t always easy.

    Great post TD, and great comments too.

    1. And those were my thought’s when I chose this subject to write about, AC.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and taking part today, Meeks.

  10. Great post, TD. I usually recommend authors cut the cliches. When I’m writing, I’m conscious of them, but sometimes they are part of certain characters’ speech habits. The wittier ones like to turn a cliche inside out. That’s a lot of fun.

    1. Excactly so… and thank you so very much for droppong by and commenting Laurie.

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