Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? To cliché, or not to cliché: that is the question

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Posted: 
July 8, 2019
Written by: Desmond Fisher

That Shakespeare, eh? What a hack. Clichés all over the place!

Lots of English teachers and writing guides advise us to be wary of using clichés in our writing. The idea is to be fresh and original. Clichéd writing holds no surprises for the reader.

Here are a few of these admonishments:

The language experts speak
Source Entry Remarks
Modern English Usage Cliché Some clichés are “far-fetched and pointless literary echoes which convict their users either of not thinking what they are saying or of having a debased taste in ornament.”
Usage and Abusage Cliché “A cliché is an outworn commonplace … that has become so hackneyed that scrupulous speakers and writers shrink from it because they feel that its use is an insult to the intelligence of their auditor or audience, reader or public.”
Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, Second Edition Cliché “So the advice from here is to avoid the cliché when an equally apt phrasing comes readily to mind.”
All your past English teachers How to write well/impress me “For every cliché I find in your essay, I will take off five marks!”

But we are also taught that most of what we imagine to be original thoughts have been thought before, by someone else, even centuries ago.

Which brings us to Shakespeare, who had a lot of thoughts that many other people have since had. But he expressed them best, so people decided to reuse his words rather than their own, inadequate, new formulations.

By reusing his words, writers could easily convey to people who had heard those words before the ideas they wanted to communicate.

And isn’t that the point of writing—to communicate? Okay, yes, sometimes writers want to show off, but most of us, in most situations, just want to get our ideas across as efficiently as possible.

As a government translator, most of my work involves functional texts. These documents need to convey a message, often to the general public and usually in an informative or persuasive manner.

What better way to do so than to use clichés? Everyone has heard them before and knows what they mean. They will create no confusion.

Yes, clichés are truly effective that way. That’s because they tap into everyone’s common knowledge, what linguists call the “doxa.” The Greek word “doxa” is defined broadly as “belief” or “opinion.” In a linguistics context, the term refers to the set of common opinions and ideas and their expression in a given society at a given moment in time.

By reaching into our shared set of ideas using simple and well-known expressions, writers can quickly and effectively communicate. If that’s not a good method for writing, I don’t know what is!

This does mean, of course, that our poor English teachers and language mavens will have to put a little water in their wine. While their advice is surely useful to writers of literature, poetry and other artistic uses of language, it is much less helpful to most writers and speakers.

So, the next time you feel guilty about telling people to keep the bird in hand rather than go for the two in the bush, don’t hesitate. Just reach into the doxa, that grab bag of collective knowledge, and pull out your favourite cliché.

You can list some of them in comments, if you like, or try to make an original contribution and see if it winds up in the doxa. Good luck!

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About the author

Desmond Fisher

Desmond Fisher is a French-to-English translator at the Translation Bureau. In addition to languages, he is interested in politics, economics and social issues, including the ways technology affects our working and personal lives. He enjoys the never-ending learning involved in working with another language.

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In short, why reinvent the wheel?

The title should be "Too cliché, or not too cliché: that is the question."

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