Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hey, Cliche


I tend not to get quite as upset by cliches as most teachers of writing, especially in introductory writing classes. (By the way, I know the word needs an accent over the e, but how to put it there using the blog machinery is beyond me.) If you look at the alleged problem of cliches from a relatively younger writer's point of view, it's no big deal, and I think I just used a cliche. Usually, when I'm visiting a work-group in class or writing comments on a poem (or essay or story), I simply point out that most readers of such pieces react badly to the appearance of a cliche, and the writer gets the point immediately, and he or she then knows that what's expected is a fresh analogy or metaphor--or, if a good fresh one doesn't seem to arise, then a different good way of expressing what needs to be expressed. I don't take cliches personally.

Moreover, I have a special fondness for the word, cliche, because I acted in a short film of that title. It was directed by Ben Shelton, and, among other things, it landed my name in the IMDB database ("database" is redundant here, I think) as an actor. (Apparently, IMDB uses the term "actor" loosely.) The role did not prove to be my big break in the movie business, but I didn't expect it to do so.

"Big break." That's a cliche, I think. But it's one of those cliches that are part of the everyday linguistic currency.

What does it mean literally? I'm not sure. Does it refer to a breaking through (which would be a kind of military term, as in breaking through the enemy's lines)? When we say "give me a break," I think we mean something like "please provide me with a rest-period from your nonsense.? For example, if we're watching yet another tired Hollywood movie with 23.5 plot-cliches, we might mutter, "Give me a break." Ironically, and intentionally, Ben Shelton's short movie did not have such cliches.

My good friend, the OED online, informed me that the French word cliche entered the written English language around 1892. In French, the term originally referred to a pre-fabricated pattern or matrix that was plopped onto molten metal to create an object. --Rather like a cookie-cutter, I reckon. Some Brits, perhaps following a French lead (to use a cliche), apparently decided that such a pre-fabricated mold served as a good image for a too frequently used expression. But of course no one thinks of the mold or matrix anymore when they read or hear "cliche," and the same is true of cliches. In English, cliche is now a noun, of course, and an adjective ("that is a cliche expression"). I believe the more standard usage of the adjectival form is "cliched," however: e.g., "that is a cliched expression"). Both forms are probably acceptable, as long as there's an accent over the e, a wee homage to French, a feather in the cap of the e, to use a cliche.

My parents' generation used the expression "don't go off half-cocked," and I assume that refers literally to a pistol that fires as the person is cocking it. The pistol "goes off." Now, however, I'd be willing to wager that if anyone uses the expression (I don't hear it much), they may not think of a pistol or anything concrete. Moreover, they may vaguely think of "going off" in terms of leaving, of going away. And they may vaguely think that half-cocked refers to being only half prepared--or something like that. "Don't go off half-cocked" now means "don't behave impulsively," yes?

Similarly, when people to refer to a dependable or resilient person as a "trouper," they may think they're saying "trooper," and they may, as I did once, write "trooper." A "trouper" is a dependable member of an itinerant performing troupe, at least that is my inference. Now, however, people may vaguely think that "trouper" is "trooper" and that "trooper" refers to a dependable member of the military, so they may think that the comparison is between a reliable person and a foot-soldier. And one one cliche leads to another: "foot soldier." Is that a podiatrist who works for the army? :-)

Another expression that interests me is "tow the line," which I belief refers to one boat towing another boat, as when a tugboat tows a large ship. So "towing the company line" would mean that, like a tugboat, a person is behaving in a servile, unquestioning way with regard to the company's policy, or the policy of "the big ship." However, I think most people now think the expression is "toe the line," as in bringing your feet in close proximity to a line on a floor. Again the reference is to a kind of obedience or servility. I think of getting one's shod toes close to the free-throw line on a basketball court, for example--obeying the rules, so that your free-throw counts, even though you don't really throw the ball as much as toss it--unless of course you're a terrible shooter of free-throws, in which case you really do hurl the ball.

In any event (to use a cliched transition, and just what event are we talking about?), I seem to be more interested in how cliches operate, how they drift far away from the original comparison, than I am in eradicating them or fiercely correcting writers who use them. (As you probably already know, there's a nice section in George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" about how expressions drift, become cliches, and otherwise lose precision and force.) Probably if writers get interested in how cliches work or even in the origins of favorite cliches, they will be likely to recognize cliches in their writing and speaking and, in revisions, excise and/or replace them, if that's the right writerly move to make.

I'll conclude by noting that I think "wasted" has become a cliche, in reference to being intoxicated or inebriated. I was most amused yesterday in a health-food store, where I went in search of almond-butter, when I heard one of the clerks say to another one, "I was totally wasted, so I had a good time." I liked the counterintuitive sense in which "totally" (as opposed to partially) wasted resulted in a "good" time, and I liked the fact that a clerk at a health-food store would not only get his body and mind "wasted" but happily discuss the matter at work the next day. I had (but did not act on) the urge to say to the clerks, "Hi--I'm interested in a product that will get me totally wasted so I can have a good time--do you have that sort of thing in the store? I'd like it to be organic, however, and healthy."
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