By Mignon Fogarty

Today’s topic is taking care of clichés.


Clichés can be a writer’s worst enemy, and the reader usually doesn’t like clichés much either. Writers from Jonathan Swift to George Orwell have ranted against the cliché like it was the Devil tempting an innocent seminary student.

Clichés are the metaphors and turns of phrase that have become tired through overuse (2). All walks of life is a cliché, along with behind the eight ball and cried over spilled milk. When these appear in copy, editors usually reach for a blue pencil or red pen and ask the writer to come up with something better.

The word cliché began as a nineteenth-century French term for a stereotype printing plate made from metal type. Books in high demand were printed from the plates until the plate wore out, just like a cliché is used until the energy of its first appearance is lost.

Where Clichés Come From

Writers never intend for a phrase they’ve composed to be used until it is hackneyed. The book of proverbs published by the English playwright John Heywood in the 1500s contains many sayings that were considered smart and original, only to have slouched into the twenty-first century as clichés. Some of his more memorable lines include better late than never and this hitteth the nail on the head.

Clichés happen through no fault of the original author and tend to be perpetuated by writers of lesser skill. You can admire the creator of every cloud has a silver lining, but coming up with something of your own will please readers more.

The Old Gets New and Old Again

Clichés can also be built on other clichés to become new but just as tiresome. Pass the buck is a nineteenth-century poker expression that crept into everyday speech. A knife with a buckhorn handle was used as a marker to show who was next to deal. If the player turned down the position, he passed the “buck” to the next player.

President Harry S. Truman turned the phrase and used the buck stops here to signal not that he was the next dealer, but that the decisions made by his administration were his responsibility alone.

He had a desk sign made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma in 1945 with the saying the buck stops here, and soon the phrase was popularized into meaninglessness. I’m From Missouri, which was on the reverse side, was fortunate to escape this fate.

Aged Clichés

Many clichés are also terribly out of date. . .

Read more about cliches on QuickAndDirtyTips.com

avatar-faceMignon Fogarty is the creator of Grammar Girl and the founder and managing director of Quick and Dirty Tips.

Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules.

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