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In Defense Of Clichés

Type-setting has gone by the wayside, but clichés are still “time-savers” for writers, and also potentially for readers.


Obsessing about journalistic clichés is itself a bit cliché, and after reading another tirade on this subject, I found myself in a mood to mount a cliché defense. When I discovered that this, too, was a very done subject, I found my enthusiasm waning and felt like a hypocrite.

After reading these tributes, however, my interest revived. It’s actually a surprisingly meaty subject. I shall avoid like the plague the old trick of using clichés to praise clichés. (Oops.) One of the biggest problems with clichés is that they are sometimes too cute by half. (Seriously, this is like a drug.) It may be, however, that a sober examination of the ins and outs of the cliché can reveal interesting things both about language and about journalism.

As a philosophy professor, I have something of a bias against people who try to strike words or phrases from common usage just because they personally have become tired of them. If a word or phrase accurately captures the idea you want to convey, you should use it. Words don’t get voted off the island just because a lot of people used them already.

The Nail that Sticks Out
When thinking about clichés, it’s worth keeping in mind that communication actually requires a high level of agreement about what particular words or phrases mean. Quite often a lack of “linguistic consensus” is itself the source of serious misunderstanding; one man’s “tolerance” is another’s “shameless libertinism,” and all kinds of misunderstanding have arisen through the incredible array of meanings that can attach to words like “natural” or “virtuous.” That being the case, it’s really rather odd to start complaining when a writer’s phraseology is so familiar that every reader will immediately grasp the point. Isn’t that rather a good problem to have?

When teaching I regularly urge my students to avoid verbal creativity. “Don’t be clever,” I tell them. “Be clear.” Students who flail around looking for pithier ways to say things inevitably muddle the argument. Of course, I realize that philosophical exercises are a distinctive and somewhat artificial form of writing. Journalists, unlike philosophy students, are obliged to entertain their readers, so it’s good to avoid hackneyed prose. It would be nice to think that journalists also have a strong enough understanding of their arguments that they can afford to indulge in a little word play without getting muddled. Sadly, that is frequently not the case. Nevertheless, my advice to journalists is to worry less about their cliché count and more about their content. Clichés can be good soldiers, provided they are drafted into the service of compelling arguments.

The Heart of the Matter
Isn’t that the real problem behind the cliché concern? It’s not that the phrases themselves are objectionable, but rather that people employ them as a stand-in for a real insight. The pressure to do this can be intense, as any professional writer can attest. Journalists are under continual pressure to find something new and interesting to say. But generating new ideas (particularly under a deadline) is difficult and exhausting, while rehashing old canards is easy. If you’re a beat reporter who has already covered a million golf tournaments, school board meetings, or union rallies, stringing together some trite, familiar phrases is much easier than doing real analysis.

Working the Crowd
Things don’t necessarily change all that much when you move into the more elite circles of the commentariat, but the most famous public personalities often turn out to be, not the people who have real knowledge and insight, but those with a knack for repackaging. Turn on the morning news, or pick up a copy of The New York Times. You’ll quickly notice some people have made glittering careers out of recycling the trite and familiar. I write that with only a tiny hint of a smirk. Timing is everything in journalism, and the public will always have some yearning for partisan hacks who tell them exactly what they want to hear. Without exactly applauding such figures, I admit in fairness that the best ones really do perfect the art of the cliché. It takes effort and considerable acumen to push the public’s buttons with the deftness of a Bill Maher or a Jon Stewart.

I myself would prefer to avoid partisan hackery. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lesson here. Employing the familiar in contextually-appropriate ways can be sophistical and manipulative, but it doesn’t elicit the classic “cliché” groan even from those of us who recognize and hate the points being made. We reserve that for situations in which people substitute pat phrases for real commentary. Clichés are contemptible when they become an excuse for speaking when one lacks real insight.

It May Be Clichéd, But…
By the same token, clichés can be dazzling when employed by an author or artist who is sophisticated enough to own them in all of their clichéd glory. For a wonderful example of this, watch the Coen Brothers’ classic, “No Country for Old Men.” You might say this film exploits its clichéd Wild West characters and tropes; if they weren’t already familiar to viewers, they couldn’t be employed to such brilliant philosophical effect. Not every article or film can reach this level of sophistication, but in watching a movie like this, we see how silly it is to rail against clichés as such. Every artist benefits from having a thick file of familiar words, concepts, and images from which to draw. It is how we employ them that determines whether they will annoy or amaze.

According to James Parker of the Boston Globe, the word “cliché” comes from 19th-century typesetters who would create special plates for phrases that appeared with particular regularity in the text. This was obviously done to save time; if a single plate could print an entire phrase, it wasn’t necessary to set the individual letters. I love the fact that the very origin of the word “cliché” lies in an actual physical practice that was once used to save a printer’s time. Type-setting has gone by the wayside, but clichés are still “time-savers” for writers, and also potentially for readers. They communicate complex ideas and evoke elaborate images with admirable efficiency. As with all labor-saving devices, then, the real question becomes: What do we do with the time we have saved? That, for good or for ill, will spell the significance of the cliché.