Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

As any good writing professor will tell you, cliché quickly kills meaning. People are exceptionally good at pattern recognition, so when a set phrase or cliché appears in conversation or text, we’re quite quick to spot it. As soon as we’ve spotted it, we begin cross-referencing it and comparing it to other past experiences, phrases, or communications. Thus, your words are thrown to the side, and a bevy of baggage is hauled into your conversation. Take, for instance, the following statement:

John was burning rubber in front of his house on the parched desert flats when he noticed the approaching truck.

When reading that sentence, I suspect that very few people would instinctively imagine that he was in fact burning rubber (placing it in a barrel and setting it ablaze), instead assuming the clichéd meaning of “driving quickly”. Here, there’s enough ambiguity to allow two completely different situations to be described, but even in less ambiguous situations, cliché can still affect (or taint) the meaning of one’s words.

Every time a cliché is used, it is stamped with another experience. Just think of all the things in your life that have “shot off like a rocket”: maybe a stock, a car, maybe even a person fleeing danger? So, therefore, every time that a cliché is invoked, each past experience of the listener with the idea is pulled into it, however subtly. So, really, a cliché is more than the sum of its parts. A few seemingly harmless words, when united, can quickly turn into an amorphous beast, both relevant and out-of-place in any conversation.

It’s also worth considering the idea of cliché in computer languages. If you always use one particular chunk of code when doing X, perhaps you’re missing out on an opportunity for more precision or improvement. Mixing it up a little couldn’t hurt, where possible.

So, when you use a cliché, no matter what you intended to express, the sum of the listener’s past experiences have just been placed in your mouth. Your entire communication just got tainted, all because of one little phrase.

Should we attempt to crush Cliché?

Well, that’s a tough question. There’s nothing inherently wrong with cliché. It seems to be built in to our use of language, and there are times when any cliché is actually appropriate. I’m sure that I’ve unintentionally snuck a few clichés into this very post. Although it might eventually be for the best to cease cliché altogether, that’s far easier said than done. However, if you’re concerned with the idea of high precision language (like I am), then cliché starts to take on a more dangerous aspect. In addition to pulling in unnecessary baggage, there’s the temptation to use a common cliché where a more unique phrase would be more powerful.

Alright, then how?

Well, that’s the trick. Anything can be overused, and the temptation is always there due to the inherent human lazyness in language selection. Perhaps the only way to completely eliminate cliché would be to categorically forbid the reuse of phrases. This would be difficult, because, well, some words are meant to be together, in the most cliché of senses (not to mention that the cliché police would inevitably face a rather cold reception, no matter their form.)

If one wants to eliminate cliché in a new language, another possibility is to create an easy, accessible system of word and meaning creation. This, too, is FAR easier said than done, but if accurate language is constructed easily enough, there’s no need to use inaccurate language.

Cliché is here to stay

So, really, there is no quick and easy way to eliminate cliché. It’s as much a part of current languages as anything else. Until the Cliché Police arrive or a better way of forming words comes along, the best we can do is exercise a little self control and try and pick the most accurate word, rather than the easiest.

Note: I’ll likely end up discussing “High Precision Language” and the idea of language creation to the point of absurdity later down the road. Sorry to leave people hanging!

Update (March 3rd, 2015): Orin Hargraves, a friend of mine, has just written an excellent book on cliché in language. Check it out!

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