In praise of the cliché

Prospect Magazine

In praise of the cliché


At the end of the day, sometimes you’ve just got to think inside the box

Blue-sky thinking: banality or ancient wisdom? (photo:

In the past week, I have taken a rain check, stared down the elephant in the room, and been my own worst enemy in more ways than one.

I am not proud. As Nigel Fountain, author of a new book Clichés: Avoid Them Like the Plague (Michael O’Mara), would tell me, I am guilty of repetition, banality and confirmation of the expected.

In my defence, it’s been a week of extremes. Or do I mean two halves? It began in New York City just in time for Hurricane Sandy and ended with a very, very long train ride down to Florida to meet Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee companion of the 1980s. Midway through, I found myself on a late night call with a writer friend. He was taking things a day at a time, I was going back to the drawing board. Then we heard ourselves. Did it make us only more clichéd that we were fretting so much about using them? Are there some clichés that are simply unavoidable?

The word itself originates in mid-19th century France, where printers would assemble time-saving blocks from the most commonly used word combinations. Fountain hews to that broad definition, and his A-Z of shame embraces buzz-words and bromides as well as adages, truisms and idioms. From “affluent society” to “zero-sum game” they are all, he argues, either redundant, vacuous or overused to the point of meaninglessness.

Many seem to be derived from the sporting world, which has moved the goal posts, given us the level playing field, and “run with” plenty. Politicians have engaged in dirty tricks and spent more time with their families, while MBA holders have come up with the scientifically wobbly concept of corporate DNA. The inclusion of Kafkaesque proves that artsier types are not immune to cliché coinage (it was referred to as “the K-word” by the chair of a literature prize I once helped judge).

But as I delved further into the book and my blush faded, I discovered a new respect for certain clichés. I began to appreciate their sturdy truthfulness and comforting ancientness. You’d guess correctly that the poisoned chalice is Shakespearean (Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii), but I had no idea that “better late than never,” a phrase I use almost daily, was first inscribed by an ancient Greek, the historian and rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus. No surprise that one of the first mentions of “thinking outside the box” occurred in an aviation trade magazine in the 1970s, but “cut to the chase” originated as just that: a direction in the screenplay for the 1930 film Show Girl in Hollywood.

Some clichés have faded into obscurity. Back in the 1940s, for instance, “castles in Spain” was a charming stand-in for “fond imagining.” Perhaps the eurozone crisis will lend it fresh currency.

Unintentionally, Fountain’s book shows how the evolution of clichés has sped up. “Whatever” has an entry even though it’s already over, really. Likewise, worrying about “work-life balance” seems like something from a far more affluent era. By contrast, Twitter, digital memes and the 24-hour news cycle can coin a cliché overnight, it seems. In that context, LOL (which in the 1960s stood for “little old lady”), OMG and ROFL fairly creak with age.

Not all clichés, you might say, are created equal. “At the end of the day,” which has justly been voted the most hated cliché, is little more than a verbal tic. “All things being equal” is another. Strip them from a sentence and its sense remains unchanged. Attempt the same with an apposite cliché and you might find you’re missing more than succinct wisdom. You’ve lost a bit of history because, far from being vacuous, the most enduring clichés tether you to generations of human experience. “Squaring the circle,” for instance, is a challenge first alluded to in English in a sermon by John Donne, but it dates back still further, to an ancient Greek geometer named Hippocrates of Chios.

Language is constantly renewing itself—combinations of words don’t stick around without good reason. And despite the fixity of those printers’ text blocks, clichés themselves can be infinitely more pliant than their literal-minded critics. Their adaptability ensures their survival—true, not everyone knows exactly what a drawing board looks like these days, yet we all recognise what it feels like to find ourselves back at one.

Camaraderie resonates in the well-chosen cliché, with its implicit acknowledgement that there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. That doesn’t excuse us from the never-ending task of finding new ways of capturing our experience in language, but at the end of the day, sometimes only a cliché will do.

  1. November 21, 2012


    wow – cut to the chase- now i know its origin-i thought chase was the inside of some kind of vegetable…

  2. November 21, 2012


    “Inside the box” may be good enough for the flotsam of daily conversation, but if one wishes to be a real writer, scientist, imparter or seeker for truth, one will avoid a cliche’ like . . . a lie!

  3. November 21, 2012

    Brian Heller

    I’m 65 but don’t recall “LOL” being ’60s shorthand for Little Old Lady. I do recall, vividly, its meaning “Lots o’ Luck”. Well, I guess I can either Like it Or Lump it.

  4. November 21, 2012

    Don Mac Brown

    Is “define your terms” a cliche? I am still working on defining “bottom line” and “zero-sum game”.

    • December 2, 2012


      Is “how do you do?” a cliche? It isn’t really a very well constructed question. I mean, how do I do what? Where I come from it is used all the time as a greeting, and I don’t think a specific answer is expected?

  5. November 22, 2012

    swamp thing

    That was so thought-provoking on many levels. I guess the takeaway is, don’t forget the oldies-but-goldies.

  6. November 22, 2012


    Incredibly, you’ve written a short piece on cliches without even mentioning the rich nautical history inherent in same.

    What, were you three sheets to the wind?

  7. November 23, 2012


    Pride goeth, etc. I must modify my position, having already found it necessary to use a cliche’ myself. Inviting a veterinary acquaintance to visit me, I urged that she would then be able to pat my cats, and then just HAD to add that of course, for her, that might only be “a busman’s holiday”. I shall have to reconsider my opposition to cliche’s.

  8. November 26, 2012


    Hephzibah Anderson hits the nail on the head. While some clichés do indeed encapsulate wisdom, the unthinking and repeated use of them is tedious. As far as “at the end of the day” is concerned: my personal distaste for the phrase goes back to its use by the Ministry of Defence spokesman Ian MacDonald, a man still remembered for his monotonous delivery of the latest official news from the Falklands in 1982, and for his infuriating repetion of the words “at the end of the day”.
    Kevin Carpenter

  9. November 28, 2012


    Not only cliches are ovefused, but such divine words as ubiquitous, iconic, and amazing. Even National Public Radio reporters use the first two to excess. But the third? Well, who doesn’t say it would be a much shorter list. To show just how tedious this usage is, I love the observation of Joy Behar one cay on THE VIEW: Your dress and Einstein’s theory of relativity are AMAZING!

  10. December 1, 2012

    Steffen Silvis

    “Catles in Spain” is in need of revival. I’m also fond of the old American term for someone departing for travel or adventures as being “off to see the elephant.” What a wonderful topic, missing only a mention of John Heywood who, after all, gave us:

    Haste maketh waste. (1546)
    Out of sight out of mind. (1542)
    Look ere ye leap. (1546)
    Two heads are better than one. (1546)
    Beggars should be no choosers. (1546)
    All is well that ends well. (1546)
    The fat is in the fire. (1546)
    I know on which side my bread is buttered. (1546)
    One good turn asketh another. (1546)
    A penny for your thought. (1546)
    Rome was not built in one day. (1546)
    Better late than never. (1546)
    The more the merrier. (1546)
    You cannot see the wood for the trees. (1546)
    This hitteth the nail on the head. (1546)
    No man ought to look a given horse in the mouth. (1546)
    Wolde ye bothe eate your cake and haue your cake? (1562)

  11. December 1, 2012


    What do you mean “At the end of the day” and “All things being equal” are meaningless phrases? The first has always meant “when all minor distractions about what has transpired are put in perspective.” And “All things being equal,” understood to mean “All other things being equal,” establishes that the listener is to consider only the factor about to be described as critical to understanding the subject. Both seem to be useful phrases to me.

    You want a really annoying cliche? “It is what it is.”

  12. December 2, 2012


    I don’t really see what’s wrong with “all things being equal.” It goes back to the Latin “ceterus paribus” and succinctly explains what would require many words to avoid–namely that this decision is highly dependent on other factors that could change the outcome.

  13. December 2, 2012


    A more recent and annoying ‘ not fit for purpose…’ regularly rolled out by lazy politicians…

  14. December 27, 2012

    Damyon Verbo

    I don’t like hearing the following, “Have a nice day” and “No problem”
    Cliches are too easy and don’t take much thought. My skin crawls when I hear “Have a nice day” thirty years after it took the US by storm.

    “No problem” should be thank you.

  15. December 27, 2012


    Let me put a stake in the sand and say I particularly like cliches when they are mixed. See my collection on Twitter @ClichesGoneWild

  16. December 28, 2012

    Ed Benevides

    People use so many awful cliches that really don’t add anything to a discussion but gives them some comfort. I enjoy having conversations in which people can express themselves without having to resort to some awful cliche unless that cliche expresses a shorthand version of a thought that is well understood. The cliche that I hate is “it is what it is” because it is usually repetitive of the obvious.

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Hephzibah Anderson

Hephzibah Anderson
Hephzibah Anderson is an associate editor of Prospect and the author of "Chastened" (Chatto & Windus) 

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