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Cliches? You should avoid them like the plague

Years ago I vowed to lead a cliche-free life, pledging to eliminate all those shopworn phrases from both my written and spoken language. That is not an easy promise to keep since certain wordsmiths from the past coined some remarkably provocative and euphonious phrases. The only trouble with them has been overuse. After they are repeated and repeated, published and republished, they qualify for certification as cliches: old fragments to be avoided.

The cliche is a very seductive form of rhetoric. I’ve done my best to avoid them. You may never have realized it, but we are surrounded by those terms. We all know most of them and thus it is far easier to lapse into a cliche rather than develop a feeling of inadequacy trying to think of a more original expression. The fact is, however, that use of a cliche can be interpreted as a lack of original thought.

Here are a few examples of cliches, randomly selected, included merely to demonstrate the scope of the problem: go bananas; happy as a clam; last but not least; no skin off my nose; low man on the totem pole; ants in his pants; red carpet treatment.

I could regale you with a whole column full, but what is the sense? Instead, I want to explain what prompted me to write about my relationship with cliches and my determination to avoid them. It all started innocently enough with a brief conversation on an airliner with two strangers. The first question usually is where are you going, and the next question is where are you from.

“From England,” they said.

“Whereabouts?”

“Newcastle, in the north,” was the reply.

Generations ago, Newcastle achieved a degree of fame that gained it international eminence. The reputation was based on its nearby natural resource, its coal mines. The mines produced tons of coal, which were shipped down the river Tyne to fire boilers and furnaces in England and throughout Europe. The city became justifiably well-known, giving birth to the phrase, “Like shipping coals to Newcastle.” That described any foolish or unnecessary activity. Why would anyone ship coal to Newcastle when they already have it in profusion?

The phrase was adopted and became a cliche, used to describe any situation that had a certain ludicrous quality—like, say, shipping a truckload of snow to Buffalo in February.

“Oh,” I said. “Coals to Newcastle.”

“Not anymore. The coal is exhausted and the mines are gone,” they said.

Bingo! The phrase lives on, although the source has been exhausted and the meaning no longer applies. But the cliche will endure.

That experience started me thinking about cliches and whether they are ever retired. I started searching my memory but quickly discovered that when searching for some general examples of cliches, they suddenly seem to be as scarce as hen’s teeth, Yes, I know. I slipped that one in to make sure you’re still paying attention. The operative thing about that phrase and hens as a group is they don’t have and never did have any teeth. They grind their food in their gizzards. Whoever claimed this column isn’t educational? Remember you read it here first. I suppose that descriptive hen’s teeth cliche still qualifies.

How about: “Back to the drawing board?” That was always a useful expression when something went wrong and a new approach was required. But drawing boards have been outflanked by computer screens and now verge on obsolescence. Will that cliche expire and be buried? I doubt it.

Another for your consideration is “barking up the wrong tree.” Have you ever observed a dog making that kind of major error in judgment? I haven’t. Yes, in my time I’ve seen any number of dogs barking up trees, but never the wrong tree. They always seem to have a pretty good idea of which tree to bark up and what is in that tree.

So be on the alert. As I said at the outset, cliches are so convenient and seductive. Shame on me; ever watchful, I occasionally drift into the alluring netherworld of the cliche. Nobody is perfect. When writing, I always put my shoulder to the wheel because it’s well-known that the chickens invariably come home to roost. They still do, don’t they?

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

10/10/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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