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I’ve become sensitised to clichés lately. It came from reading an essay by Charmian Clift called “The Cliché in Everyday Life”, which is a reflection on how and why we use such phrases. They are useful in one way, totally useless in another. Once I was focused on what clichés were, I saw how they weakened that most fragile of activities, communication. I was uncomfortable with my own use of them and have tried to eliminate them, difficult for me because i write rapidly and rarely revise for style, only for sense.
Clichés are a handy social currency for speaking when we have nothing to say, when we’re just talking, a kind of counterfeit conversation, a metaphor for use in small talk.
Cliché: a stereotype (it’s a French word that means this) or an unoriginal phrase which lessens the impact of your communication by over familiarity. Clichés are often used in speeches when the audiences are supposed to share most of the opinions of the speaker. This makes it a lot easier to speak, an occasion which makes many people nervous, but the result is usually something the audience dozes through. Poor or careless writers often rely on clichés, and that is a sign the writing is superficial, not expressing an important conviction or deep emotion of the writer, and who wants to read that? Another similar word is platitude, from a French word for ‘flat’. Perhaps the French suffer more than other races from speakers who use platitudes and clichés: French is a rhetorical language.
Many clichés can be re-arranged, as it were, to make a stronger impact. A wild goose chase sounds slightly more intriguing if you mention having to chase a wild goose. It suddenly becomes the hunting metaphor it originally was.
In her essay Charmian was speaking of an occasion when she attended a dawn service on Anzac Day, and sat through innumerable speeches. The same words will be used at any similar function anywhere in the world, at least where English is spoken. She heard:
“…baptism of fire, superhuman effort, the supreme sacrifice, foemen worthy of their steel, bearing the brunt of the battle, handing on the torch, illustrious dead, staying the course to the bitter end, valley of the shadow of death, without counting the cost, eager for the fray, the fortunes of war, their name is Legion, greater love hath no man, weighed in the balance and not found wanting, from whose bourn no traveller returns. There were also Crowns of Glory, Eternal Verities and the Record of All Time”.
By a strange co-incidence (and does the co-incidence always have to be strange?) Charmian, shortly after the Anzac Day ceremony, had to read a lot in her newspaper from politicians who were winding up for the next election. She read of:
“economic factors, far-reaching and/or progressive and/or enlightened policies, firm footing, gross exaggeration, hard facts, heavy or weighty responsibilities, stones unturned, links in the chain of progress, stable doors unlocked, supply and demand, the root of the matter, palpable lies, stern realities, facts looked in the face, every effort made and/or avenue explored, every assurance made doubly sure, people with shoulders to the wheel and/or hands to the plough, people robbing Peter to pay Paul, pouring oil on troubled waters, playing with edged tools, running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, straining at gnats…”. As she says (ironically), the imagination runs riot.
These are not, by the way, imagined phrases compiled for humorous purposes, but actual quotations from speeches and electioneering reports.
Lets look at them. One characteristic is the linked noun and adjective, such as “illustrious dead”. What the speaker wants to say is that these soldiers’ sacrifice of their lives for their country will never be forgotten (whether that’s true is another matter). But the linked words actually obscure this. ‘Illustrious’, hmm, means famous doesn’t it? Or well-known. From a Latin word for ‘bright’ (in the sense of throwing a light). How often do we use ‘illustrious’? Can you have an illustrious pet for example? The word, I think, is not current, what lexicographers call archaic. Here it allows us to refer to a taboo subject, death. Dead bodies. Hideously disfigured dead bodies in some cases. Wasted lives. War is an atrocity, so if it results in ‘illustrious dead’ then that’s all right. Here is a hidden use for clichés, to hide exact reference to what’s being talked about in a comfortable wrapping of obscure meaning we can accept. To hide the cost rather than not counting it.
Then there is the linked subject and object, such as “baptism of fire”. Like many of the phrases Charmian quotes, it has a biblical origin (see ‘valley of the shadow of death’ and ‘greater love hath no man’, ‘weighed in the balance’ etc). The phrase is a French one (again!) used for a soldier’s ordeal during WWI. The thought is, ‘baptism of water’ is a birth into a new faith and a new relationship. So war is also a transforming experience, this time by undergoing fire. But how much of that is now retained in the phrase? Another disassociated phrase is going ‘over the top’. Excessive behaviour, beyond the bounds acceptable. Yet think back to WWI again, and trench warfare, and being ordered to climb out, over the top, and charge a machine gun entrenchment, meeting almost certain and agonising death. The men so ordered were terrified. Witnesses testify how they sometimes ran screaming at the top of their lungs. And got shot full of machine gun slugs and lay down and screamed till they died, sometimes days later. This was male hysteria, and some of the bravest actions in warfare. The men were often lost and forgotten, “missing in action”. The phrase ‘over the top’ doesn’t bring this experience back to our minds. And when we hear “baptism of fire” we think not of war but of solemn moments reminiscent of Sunday School or Church. A kind of stained glass atmosphere where again, we are comforted.
A cliché, it appears, can allow us, in some contexts at least, to refer to and think about unacceptable matters without being disturbed. Like the ceremony of a funeral helps bereaved people think of the loss of their relative who has died. Cliché is language used not for meaning but for therapy. Sounds good. But, as George Orwell realised, it is subject to misuse, and so dangerous.
Other clichés refer to obsolete occupations not likely to be encountered by either speaker or audience. The farmer who clears his field of stones before sowing, the rider who leaves his horses able to stray away from the stable, the man who clears his land even to removing tree roots, the ploughman and the fox hunter, none of these would be relevant to politicians who use the clichés, nor to their largely urban audiences. The effect is therefore to make vague what is actually meant. Politicians often use language like this, a smokescreen of words (to coin a cliché).
But clichés were once respectable and effective in communication. Modes of communication have changed over the years while some speakers haven’t. I think the origins of cliché lies far back in the past, in Classical times, and in the art of rhetoric, a totally different way of talking than the one we’re used to. Rhetoric was the basic subject in all ancient education systems. It was a time of course of no electronic media, and the sounds people heard then were from animals, simple machines, ‘live’ musicians, and people talking. To talk well was of incalculable importance. This art was called rhetoric, practised by orators who were often active in politics, which was a much more public occupation then than it has since become. To speak in the assembly or the agora/forum was to gain influence, sway opinion, set policy. Two styles had evolved by Roman times, exemplified by the orators Julius Caesar and Marcus Tullius Cicero. The first apparently simple and unaffected, using plain language, the other elaborate, piling clause on clause, using splendid and unusual words, balance and antithesis in phrases. Both had the same aim, to sway the emotions of the audience, to drive them to a certain conclusion, and to make them give an ovation. It was the art of persuasion, not of argument. Cicero in particular was widely admired, and all through the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods in Europe he was very influential, both as philosopher and orator. Down to recent times, politicians who had a Classical education were orators in the style of Cicero. Winston Churchill, for example, with his “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” This was a speech made when Germany was winning WWII, and it was designed to rouse the fighting spirit of the British, and did so. Now, alas, it is a cliché. This is what oratory comes to when expressed in a time when the values it is based on are not current.
In the twentieth century a new component in language was introduced in English through the influential writing style of Ernest Hemingway. This filtered down in government bureaucracies and became a policy of using Plain English, suitable for a multicultural community (unfortunately honoured – to use a cliché – more in the breach than the observance, for bureaucrats are at heart rhetoricians whose language is more prone to conceal than reveal). Most of us are more likely now to rely on simple language. We think it shows sincerity.
For rhetoric, dip into the sea of language that is Finnegan’s Wake: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Language sensuous, moving, appealing to many layers of sense including nonsense and above all flowing sinuously.
Here is Hemingway: “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it – don’t cheat with it.” Language used surgically, cut away all vagueness, overtones and allusions, trying to say the essential, and nothing else.
We still have rhetoric. We have it in advertising matter, politicians’ speeches, and on occasions when traditional values are conventionally honoured. And within rhetoric we find clichés lurking. Their use is either an attempt to sway opinion, like Churchill, to deceive, as advertisers, real estate agents and dishonest politicians do, or to emote, a clumsy attempt made by unskilled speakers. To fall back on platitudes is to hide your emotions in a speech just when you should reveal them.
What do you say when you don’t know what to say? The inarticulate rely on cliché as much as rhetoricians do, and for the same reason, to hide emotion.
Here is the exact ear of the writer Charmian Clift again, listening to others talking about: “knowing the ropes, sticking to their guns (and lasts), leading dog’s lives, taking pot luck, at daggers drawn, adding insult to injury, running fast and loose, staying safe and sound, nipping in the bud, being high and dry or fair and square, cool as cucumbers or fit as fiddles, steady as rocks, thick as thieves, leaving the sinking ship or staying behind the scenes, chopping and changing, or just going to rack and ruin.
“People pulling the wool over their eyes, people in blissful ignorance, blank amazement, deadly earnest, alive and kicking, at their last gasp, generous to a fault, last but not least, of a certain age, the picture of health, the salt of the earth, people you could have knocked down with a feather”.
Ordinary people, comparing themselves and their friends to sailors, cobblers, dogs, assassins, cucumbers, fiddles, rocks, thieves, rats or actors, shearers, hung criminals, or paupers. People who are almost certain not to have come in contact with any of these. A fiddle is normally fine tuned: is this what is meant? But a fit fiddle? And what’s wrong with a warm cucumber? Language is becoming surreal here; perhaps these phrases come from Finnegan’s Wake.
Charmian thinks that in ordinary speech the cliché is a kind of laziness, the use of a pre packaged idea or metaphor, as you might prepare a TV dinner rather than a more elaborate and satisfying meal.
“I wonder”, she says, “if here in Australia the startling widespread use of the cliché springs from mental laziness, inarticulateness, sloppy education, or a deeply ingrained belief that there is, after all, nothing really vital to communicate except shop talk, technical or sporting information, smutty stories (on the male part), and illnesses, recipes and domestic problems (on the women’s).
“Certainly conversation does not appear to be valued for its own sake, let alone elevated to an art. Most people are satisfied with small talk as a substitute for social or intellectual exchange, and small talk can be served up conveniently in a set of time tested clichés, guaranteed not to provoke, offend, amaze, delight, amuse or to stir some sluggish idea into activity.
“Perhaps the national dependence on the cliché as a means of instant communication is a defence against ideas, which are dangerous and disruptive to the safe way of conformity. Upsetting things, ideas, and who wants to be upset?”
Mind you, the essay was written in the 1960s, and things might have changed since then (the essay was published in the collection Images in Aspic in 1989 by Collins). Charmian also mentions that in the opinion of her American friends this conversational laziness seemed typically Australian. She says her American friends were much more articulate. I would add, especially if they come from New York. But of course this is provocative on her part.
This reminds me of a quote I read recently from Plato, who said: “The wise man speaks because he has something to say. The fool speaks just to say something”.
The cliché also looks to me like a step towards Newspeak, the language of 1984. A situation first described by George Orwell, which we are experiencing across the world today, not precisely as Orwell thought. But we are totally controlled by totalitarian forces. One of the tools of control, as Orwell realised, is language.
For a people to be controlled, they first must give up their freedom. Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret, said there were both murderers and murderees. For us to be controlled there must be both masters and slaves. People willing to be the sheep. There must be language which prevents discussion and dissent, hides control and dependence, and which, ultimately, prevents thought. Orwell thought it all out, and it forms a chilling appendix to his book 1984. We play our part by using the cliché.
But also in listening to the cliché, by not asking, “what do you mean?” By relying on words that obscure meaning like anagrams and jargon, by trying to appear with-it by using slang that’s not part of our own culture or sub culture. By using words as a defence, not a means of communication. By using words to conceal not reveal, accepting “collateral damage”, not investigating “terrorist”, “underemployed”, not distinguishing “managed news” from reporting what has happened. By using archaic and esoteric language to demonstrate our learning, not relevant to our audience. By electing politicians who say “no comment”.
I admire Charmian’s essay for two things (for three things really if you count the personality revealed in it). The union of novelist’s ear for dialogue combined with concerned social commentary that is quite acute. And for being an example of rhetoric which uses cliché as it originally was, to inspire reaction, dissent, support, discussion. Charmian had spent ten years in Greece, where they did have something to talk about.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.