Garden-Variety Clichés


The poet Bunthorne, courtesy Blackburn Gilbert & Sullivan Society

Clichés are something else. By definition, they are weeds in the gardens of language. No more, no less.

And there’s the rub. Clichés are a whole different ballgame.

No plants are weeds by nature or by definition. They are weeds if and only if a particular gardener doesn’t want them around. One man’s uprooted dandelion is another man’s dandelion soup.

Likewise, no words or phrases are clichés by definition. They are clichés if and only if someone doesn’t want to hear or see them.

You can determine objectively whether a word is a noun or verb or some other part of speech. You can determine objectively the grammatical structure of a phrase or sentence. You can categorize an expression as a metaphor, a simile, synesthesia, or synecdoche. But there’s no objective way of identifying a cliché.

Cliché, in M.H. Abrams’s judicious definition, “signifies an expression that deviates enough from ordinary usage to call attention to itself and has been used so often that it is felt to be hackneyed or cloying.” Just so. But who is to determine when an expression deviates enough? Who is to say how often is enough? Is hackneyed hackneyed?

Every person’s garden of language is different. So the writer is at the mercy of the editor, and the student at the mercy of the teacher, in being subject to the editor’s or teacher’s ukase.

To editors and teachers, however, and to all self-appointed arbiters of language, the cliché offers a unique opportunity to be holier than thou, because the self-appointed arbiter can arbitrarily designate anything a cliché without running the risk of contradiction. At least, not contradiction on any logical or objective grounds.

In other words, “If you’re anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line,” take this tip from the poet Bunthorne in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience: Look down your nose at the clichés you discern in the language of others. Well, Bunthorne doesn’t say exactly that, but it’s the same point. And everyone will say:

“If that’s not good enough for him which is good enough for me,
Why what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must be.”

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