Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Never at a Loss for Words: Why Do Cliches Live On?

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Never at a Loss for Words: Why Do Cliches Live On?

Article excerpt

CLICHES. We scoff at them, ridicule those who use them, and try to avoid them i our writing. Yet, despite many attempts to discredit and eliminate cliches, these tenacious little speech units still thrive today. In the face of all thei adversity, why have cliches survived?

Now that we have, as a literate culture, ostracized cliches, we must be prepare to answer the question, "Just what are cliches?" E. W. Gilman observes that there is little agreement on the description of a cliche but offers two suggestions for defining them.

The first is that in all the use of trite, overused, stale, outworn, threadbare and such descriptors there is probably a connecting thread of meaninglessness. You might, then, want to base your notion of the cliche not on the expression itself but on its use: if it seems to be used without much reference to a definite meaning, it is then perhaps a cliche. But even this line of attack fails to separate cliche from the common forms of polite social intercourse. A second and more workable approach would be simply to call a cliche whatever wor or expression you have heard or seen often enough to find annoying.

Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, defines a cliche as "an outworn commonplace; a phrase (or virtual phrase) that has become so hackneyed that scrupulous speakers and writers shrink from it because they feel that its use i an insult to the intelligence of their auditor or audience, reader or public".

Although we may not be able to define cliches to everyone's satisfaction, we ca all recite a few. Obviously, cliches are a familiar and well-established elemen of rhetoric. However, we are frequently and repeatedly admonished not to use them. These admonishments are typically not well-explained. Gilman notes that the argument for avoiding cliches is only weakly supported by statements such a "they will weaken your writing or are an insult to the intelligence of your readers". Partridge also cites many similar attitudes toward cliches:

Haste encourages them, but more often they spring from mental laziness.

Frank Whitaker in an address to the Institute of Journalists, 13 Dec. 1938.

There is no bigger peril either to thinking or to education than the popular phrase.

Frank Binder, Dialectic, 1932

Theodore Bernstein, in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, voices a less harsh opinion of cliches. Although he criticizes the use of cliches because they demonstrate a lack of originality on the part of the speaker or writer ("if the writer cannot be witty on his own, let him not try t be witty at all"), Bernstein recognizes that a cliche is sometimes the most direct way to express a thought. Furthermore, he observes that "many of today's cliches are likely to be tomorrow's standard English, just as many of today's standard words were yesterday's metaphors: thunderstruck, astonish, cuckold, conclave, sanguine, and thousands of others that form a substantial part of any dictionary".

In his observation, Bernstein alludes to the fact that language is constantly evolving. For example, the popularity of the word groovy in the 1960s was short-lived; today, just 30 years later, groovy is almost never used. Words suc as fain and saith were common in the rhetoric of such colonial leaders as William Bradford (e.g., Foerster et al., p. 18). Now, these words are considere archaic (Guralnik, pp. 220 & 526) and have been replaced with gladly and says, respectively. Clearly, language -- and thus rhetoric -- is ever-changing, yet many cliches have managed to endure the test of time. Why? An examination of cliches throughout the evolution of rhetoric reveals their origins and demonstrates their value, thus partially explaining their tenacity.

The Evolution of Rhetoric

We believe that the evolution of rhetoric is explained best by Walter Ong's paradigm of human communication and consciousness. In his model, Ong breaks the evolution of rhetoric into four basic stages: primary orality, writing, printing, and secondary orality (Youngkin, p. …

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