Thursday, May 11, 2017

Cliches: Avoid Them Like the Plague, by Karla Stover

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                              karla stover

In 1988, Brunswick, Maine's Chief of Police told his police force to quit using the phrase, "Have a Nice Day," when on duty. He called it, "an absurdly shallow insult," And since the phrase is over 800 years old, it's also a little shopworn. The 12th century British poet, Layamon used it in Chronicle of Britain, writing its variant, "Have a good day." A couple of hundred years later, Chaucer became a devotee of the phrase. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says "Have a Good Day became popular in the 1920s and the rest, dare I say, is history.

The word, cliché, has interesting history. In 1725, the Scottish goldsmith, William Ged, patented a printing process where moveable type struck soft lead to create a duplicate plate. The action made a clicking or clacking sound. Not long after, French printer/engraver, Firmin Didot, (among others) improved the process, and Firman called it stereotype from the Greek words for solid and type. Then printers began calling the plate itself, le cliché, cliché being the past participle of the verb, clicher, which describes clacking sounds. Thus, a cliché was a duplicate of the original and, by the 19th century, when the English adopted the word, it was used to describe something timeworn.

Alexander Pope gave us one well-known cliché: "Hope Springs Eternal," but William Shakespeare gave us dozens: Too Much of a Good thing; "Seen Better Days;" and my personal favorite, "Cry Havoc and let Slip the Dogs of War." He also borrowed from the Bible: "Skin of My Teeth (Job 19:20) and Job also gave us, "Have a Narrow Escape."

Athletes seem as if they never met a cliché they didn't like. Consider the following: "This is a Good Win For us;" "My Comments Were Taken Out of Context,"and my personal favorite, "A Tie is Like Kissing Your Sister."

And then there's politics: "The Buck Stops Here," (about responsibility); "The Smoke-filled Room," (where deals are done); and my personal favorite, "I Know it When I See it," (about obscenity.

In his book, Tales of a Traveler, the American author, Washington Irving wrote, "The inn had been aroused several months before, on a dark and stormy  night" thus giving us one of our best known clichés.

Anyone who Googles or Yahoo(s) the word, cliché, will see that there are dozens of books listing them but few ideas on how to eliminate them. Reading your writing aloud seems to be the best bet. Others include, know your subject; avoid copying another's writing style and, probably the best piece of advice: "be direct, simple, brief, lucid, and vigorous."

As Samuel Goldwyn, head of MGM, once said, "Let's Have Some New Clichés."