Word play: Clichés


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, May 18th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s time for the May edition of Word Play with George Grant.

You know, that George is smart as a whip!

EICHER: Sharp as a tack.

You know, he does make vocabulary as easy as pie, doesn’t he?

REICHARD: Easy as 1-2-3. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what he has to say about clichés that you want to avoid like the plague.

EICHER: We’ve got a million of ’em.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: Clichés are by definition stock phrases or expressions that have become hackneyed, trite, or banal by overuse. They are worn-out platitudes, maxims, or truisms. They are tired and predictable declarations of self-evident truths. Clichés are, to use a cliché, old chestnuts.

Sparkling prose, we’re told, should always avoid such stagnant mire. Good writers, we are assured, think outside the box and avoid clichés like the plague—though admittedly, even that sentence is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, with a fist full of clichés, thick as thieves.

The truth is sayings only become clichés because they’re true—or, at the very least, they are truisms. Tom Quackenbush has said, “Clichés work by appealing to our collective unconscious. They are like the Pachelbel Canon in D of writing, something familiar that the talented can riff off to create distinctive work.” Likewise, Terry Pratchett has quipped, “The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.”

Interestingly, even the word “cliché” comes from the workbench. It was originally a technical French idiom used as printer’s jargon for movable “stereotype” blocks. These were small metal plates from which prints or designs could be reproduced endlessly without variety. This was called “stereotyping.” Apparently, when the blocks were dropped into place they made swishing, clicking, and echoing sounds, a bit like the rhythmical ticking of a clock. And thus, the onomatopoeia: cliché.

English type-foundries called this process “dabbing.” But, that is a whole different story.

In any case, clichés are both literally and figuratively well-worn tools. Rafael Reyes has argued that, “Clichés can actually be Truth’s most loyal friends.” Of course, not all that glitters is gold. Stephen Fry has countered, “It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.” Or is it?

For World Radio, I’m George Grant.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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