Google defines cliché as “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought,” which is why starting this piece with a definition makes me want to fire myself. I have a lot of opinions about clichés in that I believe most are objectively bad, many are annoyingly true, and a few are real diamonds in the rough. In this piece, I want to get into clichéd language. The topic of cliches has been on my mind since I read about the project The Afterglow; a totally charming exploration of still-operational New York institutions, places, and people.
It got me thinking about what I would want to write about if I contributed, and after a couple of days I realized that most of my ideas had a lot to do with, of course, language. As
Every place offers its own classic scenario: from local families celebrating birthdays, to financial meetings to a couple slurping spaghetti with meat sauce while the wife stares sadly in the middle distance looking for the exit sign. Maybe these people have constructed an airtight facade to protect themselves from questions or simply to advertise some message about what they would love to talk about if someone would stop and listen. Maybe they are just lonely. But, if you label someone a cliché, it does not mean you are right, or particularly perceptive. It means you have not bothered to do the work of finding out what lies deeper.
“They are not clichés, they are hard-barked people in retreat from the sweetness of their souls” – Amy Hempel
Writing is usually a lonely pursuit, and clichés are the brief moments during which our need to be unique is trumped by our need to be understood. After all, I am not a linguist right, right? – elbow into the side to make sure we are all on the same page here. I am sitting at a restaurant with a glass of Chinati and octopus fusilli, and clichés are exactly what I am into and all around me. Let’s unpack some word clichés that are my favorite while I order my second glass.
“Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Yes, you can but what is better than an old dog? Tricks are for show-offs anyway. But in any case, this cliché works well when my nephew tries to teach me how to use Snapchat.
“Don’t go to bed angry.” I think this is a mediocre cliché because as advice, it sucks. Not because it does not contain some valuable advice, but when that advice does not suit the situation, valuable sleep is lost at the hands of something inconsequential. Like when it is 11.30 pm and a male friend tells me that The Notebook is his
“Time flies when you are having fun.” I think this cliché is just plain truth but rude and fails for displeasing me on a personal level.
“He is a bad egg.” A fun and useful cliché indeed. What’s a more visceral metaphor than a single egg cracked in a carton of otherwise perfectly smooth ones? I think this cliché does a lot of work in four words, with the additive charm of comparing people to eggs. I know some bad eggs.
“Sitting around with my thumb up my ass.” Isn’t this a nightmare and truely the worst cliché? Please don’t make me think about your thumb lodged in your rectum. It is also very okay to just say you were simply doing nothing.
“See the forest for the trees.” I use this cliché a lot with my son and every time I say it I trip up on the word “for” because my (German) mouth wants to say “through” which makes no sense. I looked up the etymology and it apparently dates back to the 16th century when some guy named Haywood wrote: “
I am done with my wine and pasta. I want my cake and eat it too but I don’t drink like a fish or go bananas because I am cool like a cucumber. This is why I am going home now because I still have bigger fish to fry. Make sure you take all this with a grain of salt.