What Is Cliché?
Cliché, from the French clicher, meaning “to stereotype,” is an overused, trite, or commonplace idea or expression. A very large number of idioms have become clichés through excessive use. Some clichés originate from metaphors, while others from comparisons that were once original. “I beg your pardon” or “sincerely yours” are standard usages that do not call attention to themselves and are, therefore, not considered clichés. However, “happy as a clam,” “out like a light,” “a whole new ballgame,” “lock, stock and barrel” and so forth are accounted as clichés, and so are indiscriminate uses in everyday speech of terms taken from specialized vocabulary, such as “alienation,” “identity crisis,” and “interface.” Some clichés are foreign phrases that are used as an elegant equivalent for a common English term (for example, “aqua pura” for “water” or “terra firma” for “land”), while others are overused literary phrases. “The cup that cheers” is an inaccurate quotation from William Cowper’s “The Task,” referring to tea: “the cups / That cheer but not inebriate.” In his “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope comments satirically on some clichés that early eighteenth-century poets used:
“Where’er you find ‘the cooling western breeze’,
In the next line it ‘whispers through the trees’;
If crystal streams ‘with pleasing murmurs creep’,
The reader’s threatened (not in vain) with ‘sleep’.”
Cliché in a Sentence
The following sentences contain examples of common phrases that have become clichés due to overuse.
- “Sorry I’m late. I lost track of time.” – “To lose track of time” means to be unaware that so much time has passed.
- “What’s the matter? Why don’t you answer me, child? Cat got your tongue?” – “(Has the) cat got your tongue?” is a humorous question directed at one who is not speaking very much or at all.
- “Don’t worry about not having too much in common. You know what they say: ‘Opposites attract.’ ” – “Opposites attract” means to say that people who are very different are often attracted to each other.
- “I didn’t feel the earthquake last night. I slept like a log.” – “To sleep like a log” means to sleep very soundly.
- “What’s done is done; there’s no use crying over spilled milk. Besides, every cloud has a silver lining.” – “What’s done is done” is used to say that completed things cannot be changed any longer. A similar interpretation is also held by the phrase “there’s no use crying over spilled milk,” which means that one should not regret what can’t be undone or rectified. The clichéd proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” tells us that every negative situation has the potential to result in something positive or beneficial, just like a silver lining on a cloud is an indication that the sun is behind it.
(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Cliché in a Sentence)
Cliché in Poetry
The Hind and the Panther by John Dryden
“If not by Scriptures, how can we be sure,
Replied the Panther, what Tradition’s pure?
For you may palm upon us new for old:
All, as they say, that glitters, is not gold.”
In his epic poem The Hind and the Panther: A Poem, in Three Parts, John Dryden used the cliché “all that glitters is not gold,” which means that not everything that looks precious or true turns out to be so. By 1687, the year when the poem was written, the phrase was already considered a cliché. Dryden is aware of this, as proven by the addition of the words “as they say,” so the use is intentional. The cliché was coined by Shakespeare, who used it in The Merchant of Venice, but it is believed to have originated before the 12th century.
“Ode” by Thomas Gray
“Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.”
“Ignorance is bliss” is a cliché used to suggest that a lack of knowledge equals a lack of concern. Originally, the phrase alluded to the innocence of youth described in the 18th century by Thomas Gray in his poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” The context Gray uses for the word “ignorance” is one of limited knowledge rather than the crudeness or arrogance with which the word is associated nowadays.
Cliché in Literature
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
“One for all, and all for one” (originally, in French, “Un pour tous, tous pour un”) is a cliché associated with the heroes of the novel The Three Musketeers written by Alexandre Dumas the father, first published in 1844. In the novel, the phrase was the motto of a group of French musketeers named Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan who stayed loyal to each other throughout numerous adventures. The phrase can also be encountered in its inverted form: “All for one, and one for all.”
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet,”
says Juliet, bringing forth the argument that it does not matter that Romeo is from her family’s rival house of Montague, that is, that he is named “Montague.”
William Shakespeare is famous for coining many phrases and generating several clichés, for example:
- “melted into thin air” – The Tempest
- “break the ice” – The Taming of the Shrew
- “All’s well that ends well” – the play with the same title
- “Come what come may,” which has been kept in the language as “come what may” – Macbeth
- “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” – Richard III
- “laughing stock” – The Merry Wives of Windsor
“The Lion’s Share” in Aesop
“Hunting, the breasts agree to share the prey.
One part the Lion claims as bearing sway
Another for his strength, a third his toil,
The last in gratitude they ought to make his spoil.”
“To take the lion’s share” is a cliché meaning to have the larger part of something, more than anyone else involved. This phrase originates from Aesop’s fables. One story tells of a lion and three other animals, all hunting together, who catch and kill a stag for their supper. The meal was divided into four equal parts, but just as the animals are about to dig in, the lion stops them. He insists the first portion is for him as he is king of the jungle and, therefore, their ruler. He then claims a second portion for himself because he is the strongest of them all and, finally, a third because of his infinite courage. The lion then allows the other three animals to share the last portion between them but warns them only to touch it if they dare.
Cliché in Songs
“Free as a Bird” by The Beatles
“Free as a bird
It’s the next best thing to be
Free as a bird,”
Sing The Beatles, using the cliché both in the title and throughout their song.
To be as free as a bird means to be unencumbered, not restrained by anything, happy and untroubled. We can only suppose that’s how The Beatles felt when they wrote these lyrics.