In defence of the cliche

When has a word concept ever been such an anathema as the dreaded cliche?

Writers fear it, readers bristle at it. Yet it’s often confused with its cousin, stereotype, and generally misused and misunderstood. The word itself has come to mean something that is overused and trite. Written, visual, aural. Shutters banging against a house wall during a storm or a ticking clock to build suspense–aural cliche. A photograph of a beautiful lake framed in the space between two trees–visual cliche. (Can’t tell you how many pictures in my Europe 1990 photo album are framed exactly like that. I thought I was being terribly arty and clever. Erm…not so much.)

Literally speaking, the term cliche originates in the French printing industry. Back in the day when finger-stained typesetters laid out the tiny metal letters of a written sentence in racks to be slotted into printing presses, coated with ink and then transferred as print on paper, some words, sentences and phrases were more oft used than others. Phrases like ‘he said’‘couldn’t believe his eyes’, or ‘non-non, Monsieur, we will be caught’ were common enough to be permanently cast as a single piece and kept aside for repeat use.

According to the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the word actually comes from the sound made when ‘the matrix is dropped into molten metal to make a printing plate.’


Tssss… Go on, say it out loud. You know you want to.

Anyway… Back then a cliche was a good thing. A time-and-effort saving thing that helped revolutionise the already revolutionary print industry. But today, the poor old cliche has a bad rap. It’s equated with laziness, lack of imagination, absence of new thought. But the reality is that it’s still an efficient way of communicating simple concepts. Like texting, a kind of print shorthand. It’s not lazy, per se. Just…expedient.

Cliche is also often mislabeled and applied to concepts that more rightly belong under that other printing term, stereotype. Again from the printing industry and refers to a phrase/sentence that warrants a whole duplicate copy of the original typeplate, presumably, to ward against wear because it is used so very heavily and often. A stereotype is a cliche all grown up. Where a plot or a situation or a setting has become so overused it has become commonly and immediately recognised.

The other woman. The bandana-wearing stagecoach-robber on a horse. The frustrated spinster with nine cats devouring romance novels.

Oh…pardon me, my subtext is showing…

Therein lies the most important part of the enemy we know as cliche/stereotype. The only thing technically wrong with either is that they have become ‘common’. So the first person to write it is an artist, everyone else is a thief.

Sure, I don’t want to read a book laden with tired phrases or scenes. Yuk-o. But similarly, I don’t particularly enjoy (or even fall for) books where it’s obvious the author has gone out of their way to rewrite cliched sentences or concepts ‘freshly’. The chances of most of them being able to write something that no-one has ever used before isn’t high and so the book ends up wobbling on its skinny little knees with the burden of page-after-page of overly complicated, metaphorical, granite-based equivalents.

Kind of like that one.

Romance, as a rule, turns successfully on the most cliched of literary cliches: the Happy Ending. Successfully to the tune of billions of dollars a year. So, clearly there is still a place in our lives for immediately recognizable literary themes like boy-meets-girl or happy ever after. Just with moderation. We can still read and love rags-to-riches stories, we can still put a swarthy sheik on the keeper shelf, we can still shed a tear over an Ugly Duckling modernisation.

In a genre which unashamedly–in fact, proudly!–targets the common man (or woman, in this case) in volume, why are we so hung up on the presence of the occasional cliche?

Embrace the cliche. Learn to love the cliche. Don’t sacrifice to it on the alter of good taste, certainly, but don’t fear the cliche. Fearing it gives it power.

After all, it’s just a bunch of letters in a drawer in France.

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