The English Department's Blog

Feb 27

ClichesGood morning. Later today, many of you in Year 7 and 8 will return to the Player Hall for the Cooper’s Valentine Disco, wearing different clothes and large quantities of hair product and deodorant. I hope you enjoy it. If I’m perfectly honest, Valentine’s Day fills me with dread. This morning I spent almost half an hour staring at a blank card, wondering what to write for my wife. This happens every year. Eventually I throw something together that I hope sums up the way I feel about the person I share my life with, but it isn’t easy. Recently, while moving house, my wife found a box which contained all the Valentine’s cards I’d sent her since we met fourteen years ago. I was pleased she’d kept them, but my heart sank when I read the messages inside. After hours of thought, it seems that I’d repeated myself, almost word for word, year after year. The message usually read: ‘to the queen of the universe, with all my love on Valentine’s Day.’ Despite my best efforts to be witty and original, I’d fallen into clichés, familiar phrases that have been used so many times they’ve lost their original power and meaning.

This is one of the tricky things about love; it seems you can only express it with corny clichés: I love you with all my heart; I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that); I will always love you; everything I do, I do it for you; roses are red, violets are blue…. The list goes on and on. No matter how hard you try, you end up sounding cheesy when you most want to sound sincere. Of course, Valentine’s Day is built on clichés like these: the cards, bottles of wine, boxes of chocolate, bunches of roses, hideously expensive candlelit dinners, cuddly toys,  heart-shaped balloons, terrible films, soppy songs, bad poetry…. For many Christians, Valentine’s Day is another example of a religious feast that’s been emptied of its true meaning – along with Christmas and Easter; I imagine most of us have no idea who St Valentine was, or why this day is named after him. The whole day has become one big cliché: how did that happen?

You’ll probably be relieved to hear that I’m not going to talk about the history of Valentine’s Day. Instead, I want to talk about clichés:  why do we like them so much? Are they bad for our health? Is there a cure?

One of the reasons we like clichés is that they help us communicate. The author Terry Pratchett has said that ‘The reason clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication’: they help us get the job done.  There is a danger though: the more often these words and phrases are used, the less useful they become. The word ‘cliché’ is French, and it originally referred to a metal block used by printers to make multiple copies of engravings. Some people think the word was inspired by the clicking sound made by a printing press as it operates. You could say that a cliché is like a tool that is used over and over again in a mechanical, almost automatic fashion. Instead of using clichés to do a job, like tools, we often let them do the work for us, like machines. In fact, you could say that a cliché is an expression that does your thinking for you. This is why clichés are so attractive, and why they can be so dangerous.

Let me give you an example.  Whenever I sit down to write school reports, I have to remember to avoid those famous clichés we’ve all read before: ‘so-and-so could do better’; ‘he must try harder’; ‘he needs to apply himself’; ‘he needs to pay more attention’; or, ‘so-and-so is a hard worker’; ‘he has natural ability in the subject’; ‘he is a pleasure to teach’.  The trouble is, of course, sometimes these comments are true, and they need to be said. What should a teacher do? If you don’t say them, you are leaving out an important piece of information; if you do say them, you run the risk of sounding insincere.  In my own reports, I often write: ‘I look forward to supporting so-and-so’s progress next term’ – and I mean it, I really do. But whenever I re-read my reports, I worry about these words. It’s the same problem I have with Valentine’s cards: will anyone else believe what I say?

Some of you may be wondering: ‘what does this have to do with me? Dr Burton is obsessed with words. That’s his job: he’s an English teacher.’ Well, think about this next time you forget your homework. We’ve all been there: you arrive in a lesson without your assignment. The teacher calls out your name, and you need an explanation – fast. And what comes out? My dog ate my homework; my hamster died; I’ve done it … I just haven’t got it; I left it in my locker/on the kitchen table/in my other bag/at a friend’s house; I accidentally spilled something on it; I emailed it to you, but something went wrong with the attachment; I forgot to save it; I accidentally deleted it; my computer has a virus; the internet was down; there was a power cut on my street; my printer ran out of ink.  As we all know, these are clichés.  If you Google ‘homework excuses’, you’ll find these, and many more among the 2,810,000 results this search produces. There are entire Wikis, blogs and Facebook pages devoted to the subject. There are so many clichéd excuses out there, it’s virtually impossible to sound convincing, even if your printer really has run out of ink.

Even if you do remember your homework, it’s still hard to avoid clichés. This is particularly true when we write stories. How many of us have written about events that happened ‘as quick as a flash’ or ‘all of a sudden’? How many times have we been ‘literally scared stiff’, ‘literally scared out of our wits’ or ‘literally scared to death’? How many of our characters are ‘a chip off the old block’, ‘a loose cannon’, ‘a pain in the neck’, ‘armed to the teeth’, ‘as old as time’, ‘bad to the bone’, ‘a bat out of hell’, ‘a bull in a china shop’, ‘down and out’, ‘down to earth’, ‘dressed to kill’, ‘eagle eyed’, ‘fit as a fiddle’, ‘a force of nature’, ‘a force to be reckoned with’, ‘fresh as a daisy’, ‘a green eyed monster’, ‘happy as Larry’, ‘high and mighty’, ‘hot under the collar’, ‘in a jam’, ‘in hot water’, ‘a jack of all trades’, ‘rich and famous’, ‘the real McCoy’, ‘too good to be true’, or ‘your worst nightmare’? Like the homework excuses, there are millions of phrases like these. I’m tempted to say it’s a minefield, but that would be another cliché.

Now, I know most of you don’t want to write stories for a living. Perhaps you see yourself as a businessman or a politician. If so, welcome to the world of clichés. If you believe in the appliance of science, or Vorsprung durch Technik, you are using a cliché. If you want to get back to basics, or back to the good old days then (guess what?) you’re using a cliché. If you believe in best practice, the big picture, the bottom line, being proactive, circumstances beyond your control, considered opinions, the cutting edge, defining moments, drastic action, the feel-good factor, and continuous improvement going forward, you, too, are using clichés. Of course, many of these phrases are helpful – if they are used with care: they help us convey ideas quickly and efficiently. The danger, though, is that clichés can be used by politicians and spin doctors to get their own way, to lead us into thinking that more or less has been said or done than really is the case.

As an English teacher, it’s part of my job to help people spot clichés and avoid using them in their writing. It’s not an easy task, though. After all, some of the greatest writers in the world have struggled to escape from clichés. William Shakespeare wrote some of the most famous, brilliant love poetry in the English language. People regularly send his sonnets to their loved ones on Valentine’s Day. Yet even Shakespeare worried about clichés. In one of his most famous sonnets, he says ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. He’s rejecting the famous clichés found in love poetry: your breath is like perfume, you walk like a goddess, your voice is like music to my ears. At the same time, though, Shakespeare worried that his own writing seemed clichéd. In another sonnet, he asks ‘Why is my verse so barren of new pride?’, meaning ‘why can’t I think of anything new to say?’ In fact, he even admits that ‘all my best is dressing old words new’ – all he can do is repeat what other people have said a hundred times before. It’s ironic, then, that Shakespeare is the source for some of the most popular clichés in English, including ‘the green-eyed Monster’, ‘sound and fury’, ‘the stuff that dreams are made on’, and ‘all’s well that ends well’.

So is there a cure for clichés? If Shakespeare can’t escape, what hope is there for the rest of us? We seem to be back where we started, lost among a list of clichés: back at square one, back to drawing board.  Perhaps it’s best just to give up, throw in the towel, call it a day, cut our losses, go with the flow, and follow the crowd. After all, at the end of the day, when all’s said and done, to be honest, to be frank, to be fair, aren’t most clichés basically true? It’s often said that the reason clichés become clichés is that they tell us something important about life. This is a comforting thought, but, as you’ve probably guessed, it’s also a cliché. Some clichés may contain a hint of truth, but they’ve been used so many times that we no longer pay any attention. The novelist Martin Amis has said that all writing is a ‘war against cliché’; when we write, we need to reject corny, tired and worn-out expressions and aim for freshness and energy. We may not win the war, but, to use another cliché, at least we can win some battles on the way. So whatever you do today, be on guard for clichés, from your teachers, from your friends, and from yourself. And remember: Clichés are for life – not just for Valentine’s Day.

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