50 Cliches Of Gray: In Defense Of Old Truisms

February 26, 2014

At the end of the day, it is tougher than a nickel steak to banish from American popular parlance certain phrases such as “at the end of the day.”

The word police at Lake Superior State University in Michigan have been trying to strike the phrase from public discourse since 1999. Here are their Banished Words Lists from then and from 2014.

But at the end of the day, forget about it. The toothpaste is out of the tube.

“English is a very dynamic language,” says David F. Beer, a retired writing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “and parts of it are always growing or dropping off. And we don’t have an English Academy as the French do to tell us what is right and what is wrong in the language. Thus clichés such as ‘at the end of the day’ are to be found all over the language. ” Like white on rice.

While some hoary sayings occasionally fall by the wayside — for lots of reasons, such as a rise in social awareness — others will be with us from here to eternity. So when it comes to battling against tenacious cliches, maybe we should just throw up our hands and throw in the towel.

Run For Your Lives

There are those – perhaps with an ax to grind — who believe in their hearts and minds that we should run like the wind from a truism as if it’s a snake in the grass. Raise the bar, they say, and avoid repeating the same old same old. Take the road less traveled. Do your own thing.

“Avoid clichés …like the plague,” Toastmasters International, a worldwide group that works to improve communication skills, advises. Tongue-in-cheek, of course.

By definition, the group reports, a cliché “is a trite, commonplace expression – a sentence or a phrase usually conveying a popular or common thought or idea.” You could say it’s a hackneyed phrase, which itself is a hackneyed phrase.

But the very fact that a word or phrase has become a cliché, “through popular use – and overuse ,” the report continues, “suggests that the phrase has lost originality and ingenuity and, thus, impact.” It’s old as the hills and tired as an ox. Maybe it needs a swift kick.

Or could it be that there has been such a hue and cry against clichés – for as long as I can remember – that anti-cliché sentiment has finally run its course? And the cliché can be fashionable once more, the new black. It’s like déjà vu all over again.

As a believer that the English language is a living, breathing thing, I think detractors — clichéters? — should take a step back. Hold your horses. Picking on low hanging fruit is easy as pie.

So I am writing like a maniac in defense of clichés. Or at least asking that they be forgiven. In other words: Pardon the expression.

Like The Back Of My Hand

English is like a box of chocolates. Of course, we should think outside the box. But maybe we should also keep delving inside the box – where some marvelous and useful clichés reside. Cliches can cut through claptrap like a knife through butter. We can use them as a kind of societal shorthand.

There is something so wonderfully familiar about a cliche. A cliché can be as comfortable as an old shoe, as helpful as all get out. A cliché is like a long lost friend, a kissing cousin. And a cliché deserves its moment in the sun because, well, every dog has its day.

When it comes to using clichés, sometimes, the feeling is: Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

“I feel clichés are always going to be around, especially in spoken English,” says David Beer, who also wrote A Guide to Writing as an Engineer. ” Nothing wrong with them as long as everyone gets their meaning. ” If you get the drift.

In writing, however, especially more formal or academic writing, the professor says, “they seem to me to show a lack of originality, a tiredness that depends on the tried and true.” (He knows it’s a cliche.)

Eventually, he says, cliches “will wear out anyway and new ones will take their place.”

It’s not rocket science. Just saying.

The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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