Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

How Cliché: A Look


As a writing teacher I wince whenever my students add in “The author paints a picture…” *Sigh* I remind my students to strive for originality. I really feel for the essay readers since I only have thirty offenders and they must read hundreds of cliché-ridden essays.

Previous posts dealt with those everyday expressions that we have little idea what they mean through the monthly column of “Why We Say.” It ran its course and now it’s off to another dictionary of expression use: Have a Nice Day–No Problem by Christine Ammer.

Ammer scrutinizes over 3,000 sayings that have been used, and overused, to become relegated as cliché. She informs reads of the origin and whether the expression is obsolete or still acceptable. Considering the book is copyrighted in 1992, current use could be questionable, and there are no doubt new clichés that could be entered. There is also the consideration that not all clichés are questionable, and are actually appropriate, if not useful, to make a point. One person’s cliché, then, could be another’s coup de grace (to paraphrase a cliché).

We start in the “A” section:

Today's News, Entertainment, Video, Ecards and more at Someecards. |  someecards.com | Innocence quotes, Funny confessions, Absence makes the heart  grow fonder
Some truths must be faced

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: separation can create a longing
The first line in an anonymous poem published in 1602 it then became the last line of a song by T. Haynes Bayly, “The Isle of Beauty,” in 1850. It has since been said and resaid. The opposite expression would be “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Achilles’ heel: a person’s weak spot.
Go back to Greek myths to find where the mother of the great warrior Achilles wanted to protect him. She held her baby boy by the heel and dipped him in the River Styx to supposedly make him invincible. However, during the battle of Troy, Paris, Hector’s brother, shot Achilles in the heel and brought him down to his death. Still current.

The Acid Test: a means of establishing the truth or validity of someone or something.
This comes from the practice of determining true gold by applying nitric and hydrochloric acid, which dissolves the metal. It became a figurative term and is still current.

Actions speak louder than words: what a person does is more telling than what is said.
A proverb stemming from ancient Greek and other cultures, it still applies aptly to today.

Add insult to injury: increasing harm caused.
There is a Greek fable in which a bald man goes to smack a fly that landed on his head. He misses, which incites the fly to ponder what the man will do with the insult added to the injury. Well-used cliché.

Afraid of ones own shadow – Mystery of Existence
Mickey in the Haunted House (1929)

Afraid of your shadow: extremely timid.
This expression has been stated by Sir Thomas More as, “Who may lette her feare her owne shadowe,” although it can be traced back to Plato.

(To go) against the grain: going in the wrong direction of the natural wood fibers.
While the actual meaning applies to wood, this expression has evolved to mean more towards something becoming an irritant. Shakespeare stated this expression eloquently in Coriolanus, “Preoccupied with what you rather must do than what you should, made you against the grain to voice him consul.” Dickens picked up the phrase and placed it in Edwin Drood–it might have be a cliché by then.

All in a day’s work: part of what one does for a living–expected.
This expression is found in the 18th century and was used figuratively and literally, as it is now.

All over but the shouting: the outcome is determined, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Thought to have originated in the 19th century as a phrase found in sporting events, yet it applies to other events as well and is used today.

This depends on one’s perspective–and what tactic is applied

All’s fair in love and war: all and any tactic is appropriate.
Found in some form from Chaucer to Maxwell Anderson and has been paraphrased to suit occasions as in “All’s fair in love and war and politics.”

While some of these expressions could be considered everyday expressions or idioms or proverbs, others are allusions, and a couple are metaphors. Be they cliché? Chime in. The Acid Test is if upon hearing the saying you grit your teeth since its use goes against the grain to hear them used.

More “A” explorations next month. We are far from over, so don’t be shouting.

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5 thoughts on “How Cliché: A Look

  1. I admit a certain fondness for certain cliches, especially those that have reach the 3,000 year old mark. I say, if a cliche can last 3,000 years, well, you’re OK with me, little buddy.

  2. petespringerauthor on said:

    Great post, Pam! I suppose the original writer should take it as a compliment that so many people reuse their phrases and make it a cliche.

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