What is a Cliché?

I get many suggestions of cliches to add to this list -- sometimes as many as a few hundred a day. As such, I consider myself quite experienced in identifying cliches. And, reading all these suggestions, I've realized something of late: too many people don't know what cliches are.

Just look at some recent suggestions I've gotten for the list:

  • That sucks!
  • He's so fat, he sat around the house.
  • Cool
  • Life's a bitch, then you marry one.
The non-cliche suggestions I've received seem to fall into two categories: bad jokes and plain commonplace expressions. It seems obvious to me that the former category (just plain bad jokes) aren't cliches; I'm not even going to go into detail on that one. But the later category presents a problem. What is a cliche if not a commonplace expression?

Answer: a lot. A cliche is not just something that lots of people say; It's something that lots of people say and it conveys some sort of idea or message. A cliche is, in other words, a metaphor characterized by its overuse.

I have my own test to see if a phrase is a cliche or not. I read the first half of the sentence, then I ask myself, "do I just know (because everyone knows) how the sentence ends?" Someone recently submitted, "The gene pool could use a little chlorine." I knew this wasn't a cliche because when I say, "The gene pool could use what?" I don't know how to end the sentence.

Some visitors to this site have agreed with me.

A few weeks ago, a well-intentioned man added the word "Serendipity" to this list, and, when I finalized the suggestions that week, I missed that one. A Web surfer e-mailed me to point this out. "Let's remember that what characterizes a cliche is its trite connotation," he said. "'Serendipity,' although a widely-used term, I think does not constitute a cliche because it conveys a very specific meaning and idea which could not be expressed by substituting for any other word." And I think he was right on mark.

Or lets take another visitor to this site, who wrote me, "To me a cliche is very different to a saying, as you have many on your list. Cliche is a Grand truth that doesn't help anyone."

Or another visitor, who wrote,

Definition of cliche: that's easy. A cliche is a vivid depiction of an abstract matter that works by means of analogy and/or exaggeration.

The picture used usually is drawn from everyday experience so that the recipient most probably is able to relate to the depiction by tentatively querying his reaction to what is conveyed in the picture.

Or yet another, who rather eloquently suggested that, "A cliche is an analogy characterized by its overuse. It may be true ('Fat as a pig'), no longer true ('work like a dog') or inscrutible ('right as rain'), but it has been overused to the point that its sole function is to mark its user as a lazy thinker." Expressions you and your friends make-up one afternoon can't be cliches for this very reason.

It's harder to say what isn't a cliche than what is. Let me know if you do have any suggestions.

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