CLICHE: an expression, aphorism, proverb, maxim, idiom or phrase that is overused, trite, hackneyed, stale, commonplace, banal, unimaginative, worn-out and tired.
About the worst insult one can hurl at a writer or speaker is to accuse them of being a purveyor of cliches, and, therefore, deficient in original thinking. In truth, attacking cliches has itself become a cliche.
Well, I’m here to defend the cliche and those who use them and to suggest that the study of the cliche not only improves one’s critical thinking but teaches us to appreciate the history of human experience across cultures, language groups and time.
To begin, ask yourself: Why would the same groups of words be used, reused and overused?
The answer: Because they describe undeniable truths about the human experience, and they do so effectively and efficiently.
Cliches are shorthand forms to human behavior and history.
The cliche’s crime is its success, and its success lies in its ability to cut to the gut (a future cliche, I hope) of a matter in a language understood by all.
Oh, yes, I suppose a writer or speaker could invest countless hours in search of a new and different way to say “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” but why bother when chances are the result will be second-rate and not connect as powerfully as the original with the receiver?And that’s because cliches reflect the best thinking of our forebears.
Their users should be thanked for perpetuating their usage; in fact, if I had my way, public schools would be mandated to teach a course on “The Wisdom of the Cliche.”
If studied, understood and examined through observation, we would all be better armed against double-talk, scams, fluff and all around nonsense.
The cliche, a rational commentary on life, lets you penetrate below superficial surface structures to the truths that lie below.
To prove my point, take the three cliche tests below, all descriptions of real-life events, and pick the cliche(s) that go to “the heart of the matter.”
No. 1: A parishioner attends the same church every Sunday for 20 years and listens to the minister deliver anti-American and anti-Semitic sermons.
Later in life, the parishioner insists that he never agreed with the minister’s views of the world.
A: It’s not what you say. It’s what you do.
B: Birds of a feather flock together.
C: You will be judged by the company you keep.
D: Lay down with dogs, get up with fleas.
All four describe the truth of the parishioner’s behavior.
No. 2: An engaged woman is leaving her hospital room after undergoing abdominal surgery. Her fiance says to her: “I’m glad that’s over. I was sure worried about you.” He starts out the door, turns to see if she is following and says: “Pick up your suitcase, honey, and let’s go. I sure do love you.”
A: A friend in need is a friend in deed.
B: Actions speak louder than words.
C: What you see is what you get.
D: A stitch in time saves nine.
A, B and C are correct. And my advice to the young woman is to “run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit!” ALONE!
No. 3: We are told that Cuba is an economic and social success, that its people are healthy, happy and productive. Yet on a recent eight-day tour of Cuba, my fellow travelers and I were chased through the streets of Havana by crowds of raggedy people, begging for food, soap and toilet paper.
Scaffoldings — erected 15-plus years earlier for the purpose of reconstructing deteriorating buildings — were now stories-high metal trellises, longtime carriers of vines and debris.
And driving hundreds of miles across the island, one sees only a trickle of cars and trucks (until the vintage cars of Havana).
Most transport is by horse-drawn wagons, and despite the obvious shortage of food in the country, acre after acre of fields are uncultivated.
A: One picture is worth a thousand words.
B: Seeing is believing.
C: Don’t believe everything you read.
D: Killing two birds with one stone.
The answers: A, B and C.
At the root of these vignettes and all good stories (novels, plays and movies) are cliches, and that’s because I hate to tell you — LIFE IS A CLICHE!
Carol Mizrahi is the local author of the novel “Coming of Age ... AGAIN” and the blog “The Bottom Whine.”