Have you ever head anyone say, "Ugh, that's such a cliché,"? Clichés are terms, phrases, or even ideas that, upon their inception, may have been striking and thought-provoking but became unoriginal through repetition and overuse. Popularity made them seem trite, turning them into what we now know as clichés. You will recognize many of the examples of clichés below.
As the French poet Gérard de Nerval said, "The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile."
Origin of the Word Cliché
The word cliché has French origins, which is why you'll often see it with an accent over the "e," but you can also write it as "cliche" in English. When printing presses were used, the cast iron plate that reproduced the words, phrases, or images was called a stereotype. The noise that casting plate made sounded like “cliché,” meaning click, to French printers, so this onomatopoeia word became printer’s jargon for the stereotype. Thus, cliché came to mean a word or phrase that gets repeated often.
Just because a phrase is overused doesn't mean it's a cliché, and because a phrase is a cliché doesn't mean it isn't true. A cliché conveys an idea or message but loses its point through over-usage. We'll let you be the judge of these examples of clichés you'll find in everyday use.
Hidden Meanings in Clichés
We've only scratched the surface here. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of clichés in the English language. Many of them have meanings that are obvious; others have meanings that are only clear if you know the context.
For example, the cliché, “any port in a storm" has a hidden meaning. The obvious meaning is that, in a bad situation, any help will do. However, this cliché may also be used when talking about someone who has many lovers.
Some clichés can be interpreted differently based on their context. For example, "Do you think I'm made of money?" and "It's like I'm made of money," sound similar, right?
Further context is needed to understand if the speaker is saying this to complain or brag. "Do you think I'm made of money?" implies you don't have any money. "It's like I'm made of money," may imply that you have tons of money. We'd have to be engaged in conversation with the speaker, or be able to read further, to completely understand the meaning of this line.
Not all clichés are necessarily true either. Some are a matter of interpretation.
- "With experience comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes experience" is not true for everyone's life.
- “It's better to have loved and lost, then to have never loved at all” is a common cliché. But you might disagree with that sentiment.
As we've seen, some clichés are cut and dried like, "He has nerves of steel." Others remain open to interpretation. As time goes on, you may interpret them differently, come to accept or reject their meanings, and perhaps, even create a few clichés of your own.
Clichés and Idioms
Idioms are figurative phrases with an implied meaning; the phrase is not to be taken literally. An example of an idiom is, “having a chip on your shoulder." That means you think you're better than everyone else (not that you actually have a chip of something on your shoulder).
Clichés are often idioms. This makes clichés difficult to translate into other languages because their meaning won't always be understood by people from different cultures.
Idioms are either opaque or transparent:
- Opaque - When you translate an opaque idiom, it may not make sense because the literal meaning has very little to do with the intended meaning. An example of an opaque idiom is “bag of bones” which means someone is very underweight.
- Transparent - A transparent idiom shows some similarity between the literal and the intended meaning. For example, “playing your cards right” is an expression that actually came from card games and can be applied to other situations.
As a brief phrase that implies a lot an idiom can become a cliché if it's used often enough, such as “it’s raining cats and dogs.” Its meaning will catch on and propel itself forward, much like any other cliché we use today.
Have Fun with Clichés
In the end, have some fun with clichés — they are easily recognized and understood — but use them sparingly. The first conclusion people jump to when they read too many clichés is that the writer is unoriginal. While that may not true, you don't want to set yourself up to be knocked down.
You might have a great cliché in mind because its meaning rings true for you, such as, "time heals all wound." If that's an idea you want to work with, try to find your own, unique way of conveying that meaning without recycling words that have been used a million times over.