We’re all familiar with verbal clichés; they’re a dime-a-dozen and no big deal. We use them all the time as shorthand for the commonplace, experiences so everyday as to resonate with nearly everyone. The path from metaphor to cliché is particularly fast in our information-centric 24-hour news cycle, where aggregators and websites glom onto catchy phrases and wear them out in no time flat.
The word cliché began as a French die-makers term for using (called “striking”) hot lead in order to obtain a cast of letters for use on a printing press. Derived from the verb “cliquer” meaning “to click”, it became associated with stock words or phrases used so frequently that they remained set and available to be “struck” or “tapped” at any time.
Politicians are particularly adept at cliché; when stripped of emotional power by overuse, cliché is a safe haven for those who want to dull minds by using lots of words to say nothing. In fact, never before in the history of politics have so many said so much about so little. Social media’s the new paradigm.
Clichés get so worn out they simply disappear into the scrap heap of history, but don’t worry, be happy, it’s cool; there are always new clichés around the corner. As they tire, clichés become the stuff of satire and irony, signifiers of shallow thinking and sources of snark and sarcasm. To become clichéd is to be one step from the grave, thus our penchant for zombie humor.
Though every word is used millions of times each day, why is it some become cliché? New clichés begin as a surprise, inventive and unexpected verbal gymnastics that grab attention. Artists and writers cavort and play havoc with conventional meaning to stimulate reactions. Nowadays our clichés spread virally, an exuberance of “Verbal Spring”. This same exuberance deflates almost as fast within the confines of our fickleness and obsession with seeking new sensations. Cliché is our linguistic stimulus program.
Clichés are also visual, and to this I give a big thumb’s up; you may choose to use a different finger. The same is true of fashion, colors, ring-tones and emoticons. When I was a boy “fins” on cars were fashionable for a while, until Mad Magazine (itself a cliché) affirmed their status as cliché. Repetition alone is enough to bestow cliché status. Visual shorthand is the life’s blood of advertising where mere milliseconds matter. Where would beer sales be without chicken wings and football?
Of all the commercial clichés, those associated with sex are among the most common. The middle-aged couple smiling suggestively at each other while the voice-over warns about erections lasting more than four hours comes to mind. Has this been a skit on Saturday Night Live? Such a predictable cliché has surely been deemed too worn for snarky humor.
Cliché is teaching a new dog old tricks. People crave comfort from the jarring experience of life, and cliché feels like an old pair of shoes or favorite easy chair. It greases the wheel of life making it seem quieter and smoother, but also lulls the mind and puts us to sleep in a version of cultural self-hypnosis. Cliché is our 24hr-commercial of recycled ideas. This is why your eyes are getting heavy and you’re feeling very relaxed. But wait, there’s more.