20 Best Cliché Examples in Literature


A cliché is a phrase or word that has been repeated so many times in writing and speaking that it loses its real appeal, impact, or even meanings. Its repetition seems merely a repetition. Originally, the term came into English from French as the last ‘e’ sound shows, but even in English, it is pronounced in the same way. It seems that its origin lies in the French printers where plates were called stereotypes and their sounds cliché, which means click or clanking. With the passage of time, however, it turns out to be a phrase that loses its significance due to continuous usage, repetition, or overuse.

Example #1

Forever And a Day

This cliché was first used in the 16th century when William Shakespeare used it in his play, The Taming of the Shrew, the reason that it has won great popularity. Since then, the phrase has become popular in the meanings of a long time. However, OED states that the meaning was translated by Thomas Parnell when rendering Ulrich von Hutten’s medical works into English. It was used regarding a disease to denote the length of time. It also traces its back to aye that has changed into a day in the phrase. Later, it also appears in Shakespeare’s other play, As You Like It. It has won great popularity and stands first in our order of ranking.

Example #2

Happily, Ever After

This cliche first occurred in the book of Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron. The book first appeared in the 15th century and was translated in the 17th century. The phrase or cliché goes in this translation as “and happily, ever after.” The cliché has been used in connection with marriage. Although the phrase does not refer to the conjugal life on the earth when it was first used, later, this meaning was also added to this phrase. This was, therefore, used in this sense, too, the reason that it stands second in our order of ranking.

Example #3

Add Insult to Injury

This is another popular cliché and stands second in our order of ranking. It is quite common and is often used when there is some enmity between the two parties. The cliché first appeared in the story “The Bald Man and the Fly” written by Phaedrus. It is also attributed to the Grecian writer, Aesop. The cliché is stated to be relevant to a fly biting the bald head of a man. However, when he tries to swath away the fly, he injures himself. The fly responds to him using this cliché in the sense that he was suffering from a minor injury, but in hitting himself, he has added insult to this injury. Its overuse has won it popularity that it now stands third in our order of ranking.

Example #4

Avoid It Like the Plague

This cliché is stated to have occurred in the letters of Saint Jerom, who happened to live during 347-420 BC. Written in Latin, it goes as “Avoiding these then as though they were the plague” or “avoid as you would the plague.” The phrase often refers to Plague in London as this disease spreads very fast and reaches every nook and cranny. Therefore, when it is necessary to avoid some evil, this phrase or cliché is used extensively. It is stated that William Bridge used this cliché in his words “Greenham, a physician should give directions to a man to avoid the plague.” Its usage has won it fourth place in our order of ranking.

Example #5


This is another one of the most used clichés. It refers to the sharpness of the eyesight like that of an eagle. In fact, eagles have legendary spotting power that they use to find their prey. It is stated that Horace used this phrase for the first time in his satires in 35 B.C. He has used it in the sense that the persons, having an eagle-eye in spotting faults in others, do not see their own faults or are blind to their own faults. Bishop William Barlow used this phrase in the sense of the sharpness of faith in 1601. The phrase or cliché was later used in the literal sense. Due to its popularity in general writing, it stands fifth in our order of ranking.

Example #6

Dead as a Door Nail

This cliché is stated to have been used in the popular poem “Piers Plowman” written by William Langland. However, in terms of spellings, it was different as Langland wrote it as “ded as a dore-nayl.” It is, nonetheless, uncertain who first coined this phrase as it appears later in the poem of William of Palerne when he used it in his poem “Parliament of the Tree Ages.” It was used in the sense when a thing becomes unusable such as nails that were bent in the doors, striking them hard to join two planks. Therefore, it was used as dead as a doornail. This cliché stands sixth in our order of ranking.

Example #7

Sacred Cow

This interesting cliché was first used by Margaret Mitchell in her tour de force, Gone With the Wind. The novel first appeared in 1936 in which the phrase goes thus; “I think of my brother, living among the sacred cows of Charleston.” Here it has been used in the literal sense as this animal is sacred for the Hindus of India. Later, it came to be used for people having specific privileges in a social group. Interestingly, this phrase or cliché of Indian origin is mostly used in the Indian context for the people have kept themselves immune to social pressure. This cliché comes seventh in this ranking.

Example #8

Safe Haven

This cliché has been in much use in the US and other English newspapers due to the war on terror and the Taliban surge in Afghanistan. It has been used so many times and in such a repeated way that it has lost its real significance, making it almost redundant. Therefore, this stands 8th in our order of ranking. Yet, it is not a new cliché. Robert Southey is stated to have used it in 1795 in his poem, while it was used earlier in 1581 as Oxford English Dictionary claims. Its recent use for the Taliban to have good hiding places has clarified its real meanings.

Example #9

Throw One’s Weight Around

This phrase or cliché, too, has become highly popular due to its usage in argumentative writing. It was first used in English in 1940 by John Marquand in his scrips of H. M. Pulham, Esquire. He has used this phrase with reference to Bo-jo, a character. However, the real meaning of this phrase is to add something to make oneself important. It could be consensus, wealth, power, or something else that makes a person important to enabling him to manipulate others. This also means a social status in one sense. Due to its importance and usage, it comes ninth in our order of ranking.

Example #10

Little Did They Know

This literary cliché first appeared in George Dobbs’ writings in the 19th century. However, later it appeared repeatedly in a magazine presenting writings from adventurers during the decades of 40 and 50. Dobbs cites the same magazine from December 1931, showing its usage, adding that the users used it in the sense of never knowing what was going to happen. It has, therefore, infected the minds of generations regarding adventures and unknown things. Therefore, this popularity has won it a tenth place in our order of ranking.

Example #11

Pot Calling the Kettle Black

This is also one of the best clichés used in the political sense. However, it occurred back in 1620 when Thomas Shelton, an English translator, rendered Don Quixote, the Spanish odyssey, into English. Although the original phrase or cliché was not exactly like this one, it, nonetheless, referred to the kettle and frying pan. As both phrases mention kitchenware popular at that time, it still refers to the same thing though utensils have changed a bit with the change in fuel and color. Yet, this metaphor demonstrates the same hypocrisy and is used in the same sense. Therefore, it stands 11th in our order of ranking.

Example #12

A Camel Through a Needle’s Eye

Although this phrase or cliché has reached us through ancient classical scriptures, they still hold the same meaning of impossibility. It first occurs in the Gospels of St. Matthew in 19:24. It states that a rich person cannot enter the Kingdom of God, though, a camel may go through the eye of a needle. This expresses the impossibility. Shakespeare also used a similar sounding cliché in his Richard II, while some of the versions used in Jewish and Islamic writings almost demonstrate the same sense. This extensive usage of this cliché has placed it at 12th  in our order or ranking.

Example #13

Take the Tiger by the Tail

It refers to a vicious cycle in which a man finds himself fully trapped. It shows a person holding the tiger by a tail. Leaving the tail would lead him to certain death at the hands of the same beast. The phrase occurred first in Felicity Newson’s review of a book in 1928. However, it occurred first in 1663 in the sense of catching a Tartar, while Emma Lathen also used it in 1972 with the same words and the same sense. Therefore, the cliché has been placed 13th in our order of ranking.

Example #14

Calm Before the Storm

This is also one of the best and the most used clichés. It means that sense of some imminent danger that is lurking somewhere and is about to unleash its fury. It is stated that its origin is unknown but it was in use during the 12th century when the writers used to refer to calmness as having a storm in it, or that calmness prevails before the arrival of the storm. This continued until Machiavelli used it in his book, The Prince, published in 1513. However, his reference is to the fault of men that they do not guess the storms when the weather is fine. Since then, it is used in the political sense, the reason that it comes 14th in our ranking.

Example #15

Put One’s Best Foot Forward

Although this cliché has become too trite due to overuse, it was first popularized in the 16th century with the best foot and better foot alternatively. William Shakespeare is stated to have used ‘better foot’ in his play, Titus Andronicus and King John. Thomas Overby also used it in Characters: A Footeman published in 1613. However, in both cases, it means to use the right foot or to use the best thing first. Even the cricket commentators have overused it for the teams which force the best players to play first. Therefore, the cliché has won 15th position in our ranking.

Example #16

Blue Blood

The term originally arrived from a Spanish term, sangre azul which means pure blood used for the people belonging to the aristocracy. It is mostly used for the people having Moorish ancestors due to their excessively blue veins with fair skin color. However, it entered England when W. S. Gilbert first used it in Iolanthe in 1882. His character, Lord Tolloller used it for his maid, Phyllis. Since then, it has been used for the aristocratic people for having a noble birth. This vast usage of this cliche has won it 16th position in our ranking.

Example #17

Low-Hanging Fruit

First appearing in the middle of the 20th century, this phrase became popular instantly and turned into a cliché when it entered business and commerce. The meaning of this cliché literally resembles it as low-hanging fruits that could be easily collected. It refers to tasks easily achievable. Like fruit, they do not need much hard work or rigor. Therefore, the phrase demonstrates its usability and transformation into a cliché. Hence, it stands 17th in our ranking.

Example #18

If Only Walls Could Talk

This phrase has recently turned into a cliché to mean things that could not be said on the face. These are the conversations that are held behind the scenes or in the rooms. That is why it is stated that if walls could talk, they would tell the real story. The phrase has become popular from the movie of the same title released by HBO. The abortion stories of the three women happening in the same room tell that if the walls could have talked, they would have narrated the same stories in the same words. The veracity of this cliché has kept it alive in writings, the reason that it stands 18th in our order of ranking.

Example #19

Think Outside The Box

Originated in 1970 from the work of a psychologist, J. P. Guilford, this out-of-the-of-the-box cliché hit the writing world and became an instant success. Structurally, this cliché is a metaphor that shows thinking lying in the box or being caged. Therefore, thinking to get out of this box would release it. Management consultants and lateral thinking gurus used it to bring unconventional thinking into management so that the managers could leave their traditional ideas. The phrase has also become a catchphrase besides being a cliché. Therefore, it stands 19th in our ranking due to its popularity.

Example #20

Read Between the Lines

Mostly used in academic circles for comprehension exercises and literary criticism, this phrase turned into a cliché which means the readers should read the real message of the speaker who has conveyed it through words. A speaker could hide any message in his words, and that is the job of the readers and the listeners to reach that message. It originated from an article published in the New York Times in August 1862 where it was used with reference to the British Foreign Secretary, Earl Russell.