Hurray for Cliches?


Do you like clichés?

No, of course you don’t. No normal person would answer that question with a yes. I hate them, too. Or so I would have said till I flipped past an entry on clichés in Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Here are the terms that were listed there:

at the end of the day

blissful ignorance

but that’s another story

comparing apples and oranges

conspicuous by its absence **

crystal clear

far be it from me

fast and loose

get with the program *

his own worst enemy

if you catch my drift *

innocent bystander

moment of truth

more in sorrow than in anger **

more sinned against than sinning **

my better half *

nip in the bud

on the same page

pulled no punches

sea change

six of one, half dozen of the other

throw the baby out with the bathwater

viable alternative

The ones with two asterisks next to them I don’t remember ever hearing before I looked at this page in Garner's, at least not in that exact phrasing. The ones with the single asterisks I dislike. Every single other one, I must confess, I like.

I know that some of these cliches shut people’s brains right off.

For example, people who’ve heard “at the end of the day” once too often grow to really hate it. And I get why overused and well-used expressions garner so much contempt. Their actual words lose mean and they become sort of a humming nod to a vague idea created by brains in off-mode and appealing to brains in off-mode.

Yet, somehow, “on the same page” fills a need that “in agreement,”  “collaborating” or any other term doesn’t quite fill.


“Throw the baby out with the bathwater” seems a great way to communicate the idea of discarding too much good along with the bad. And “moment of truth” -- come on. Are there any better words in the world to express the idea of the moment – the one life-changing moment – in which a flash of insight or clarity will change everything forever?

As someone who writes about language, I feel almost obligated to chant the “avoid clichés” team motto. But perhaps saying “avoid clichés” is itself a cliché that supplants a once substantive message with droning noise that has lost all meaning.

And by the way, if, like me, you’ve been told that cliché can only be used as an adjective, as in “a clichéd expression” and not as a noun “it’s such a cliché,” that’s not true. It’s a noun, too.

Tags: , ,