Definition of Cliché
A cliché is an expression that is trite, worn-out, and overused. As a result, clichés have lost their original vitality, freshness, and significance in expressing meaning. A cliché is a phrase or idea that has become a “universal” device to describe abstract concepts such as time (better late than never), anger (madder than a wet hen), love (love is blind), and even hope (tomorrow is another day). However, such expressions are too commonplace and unoriginal to leave any significant impression.
Of course, any expression that has become a cliché was original and innovative at one time. However, overuse of such an expression results in a loss of novelty, significance, and even original meaning. For example, the proverbial phrase “when it rains it pours” indicates the idea that difficult or inconvenient circumstances closely follow each other or take place all at the same time. This phrase originally referred to a weather pattern in which a dry spell would be followed by heavy, prolonged rain. However, the original meaning is distanced from the overuse of the phrase, making it a cliché.
Common Examples of Cliché in Everyday Speech
People tend to use cliché in social settings to convey something that is broadly understood at a basic level, as a means of filling conversational time, or perhaps when nothing better comes to mind. Though cliché is utilized often in everyday communication as somewhat of a linguistic crutch, there is a risk that the phrase may be unknown and therefore meaningless to the listener. Therefore, it’s best to use clear and original wording to avoid confusion.
Here are some common examples of cliché in everyday speech:
- Even though she is 80 year old, she’s still sharp as a tack.
- Her advice is to live and let live.
- My father always says that it’s another day, another dollar.
- My dog is dumb as a doorknob.
- He’s so unmotivated that he’s just sitting like a bump on a log.
- If you hide the toy it will be out of sight, out of mind.
- I’m upset about my flat tire, but I guess it is what it is.
- Before the teacher could assign homework, the class was saved by the bell.
- The little boy has to learn that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
- I’d ask what’s wrong, but I don’t want to open that can of worms.
- The laundry came out as fresh as a daisy.
- My boyfriend says that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
- Even though he didn’t like the gift, it’s the thought that counts.
- My coach told us that there’s no “i” in team.
- When I asked about the next step, my teacher said that we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
Examples of Movie Lines that Have Become Cliché
A movie line can catch on and be repeated so often that it becomes a cliché. In fact, cliché movie lines can be so pervasive and overused that many people may recognize the line without having seen or heard of the movie. Here are some examples of movie lines that have, unfortunately, become cliché:
- If you build it, they will come. (Field of Dreams)
- I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse. (The Godfather)
- Luke, I am your father. (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)
- i am Groot. (Guardians of the Galaxy)
- She doesn’t even go here! (Mean Girls)
- I’ll be back. (The Terminator)
- Houston, we have a problem. (Apollo 13)
- That’s no moon; it’s a space station. (Star Wars: A New Hope)
- Just keep swimming. (Finding Nemo)
- I mean, I told you not to go in that house. (Get Out)
Famous Examples of Cliché in Creative Writing
Sometimes writers rely on a cliché if they are uncertain how to begin or end a creative piece. Unfortunately, this can be a tedious and unsatisfying experience for the reader, unless the reader is a child or the story is a rehearsed fairy tale. Relying on cliché in creative writing, sadly, reveals the limited originality of the writer and undermines their power of expression.
Here are some famous examples of cliché in creative writing:
- It was a dark and stormy night
- Once upon a time
- There I was
- In a faraway land
- It was all a dream
- The ends justify the means
- All’s well that ends well
- They lived happily ever after
Though it’s advisable for writers in nearly all situations to avoid using cliché in their work, occasionally there are exceptions. For example, incorporating a cliché that is associated with a certain time period, region, product, or group of people might be helpful rather than directly explaining or describing them. This can also form a connection with certain readers. A writer may decide to use “the Big Apple” once rather than directly saying or repeating New York City. However, use of cliché as a device in this instance should be as sparing as possible.
Another exception for writing clichés may be to demonstrate how a character is unoriginal, unimaginative, or even something like a “fast talker.” For example, when creating a used car salesman character, a writer may include several clichés in his speech to establish a pattern of expression and certain, limiting character traits as well. Once again, it’s essential that writers carefully consider whether using a cliché truly benefits the work and the reader’s experience.
Examples of Cliché in Literature
In literary works, the presence of clichés can be tedious, tiresome, and even annoying for readers. Even worse, they generally reflect poorly on the writer and make them appear unoriginal, without imagination, lazy, or unskilled. Since clichés are also and often a reflection of culture or language, their meaning may be lost on readers that are unfamiliar with the phrase. In addition, outdated clichés or ones that have been repeated innumerable times will appear archaic and irrelevant to readers.
However, occasionally a literary work will reference a cliché or its use as a device in a humorous, satirical, or innovative way. When done effectively, this showcases a writer’s literary talent. Here are some examples of cliché in literature:
Example 1: An Essay on Criticism (Alexander Pope)
Where’er you find “the cooling, western breeze,”
In the next line, it “whispers through the trees”;
If crystal streams “with pleasing murmers creep,”
The reader’s threatened (not in vain) with “sleep.”
In Pope’s verse, he satirizes the predictability of clichés in “poetic” descriptions of nature by presenting them to the reader at the end of each line in the order he anticipates them to appear. Pope’s final line warns of the effect such clichés have on the reader, which in this case is putting them to sleep. In fact, the declaration of the reader being “threatened” with sleep creates an image of death as if the predictability of a writer’s clichés has the metaphorical power of killing the reader with boredom.
In his clever and satirical use of clichés in his own writing, Pope upends their intended poetic power by warning writers of a cliché’s power for losing readers. This warning applies to readers as well in that Pope is validating their boredom of trite and meaningless phrases.
Example 2: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman)
IT WASN’T A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. It should have been, but that’s the weather for you. For every mad scientist who’s had a convenient thunderstorm just on the night his Great Work is finished and lying on the slab, there have been dozens who’ve sat around aimlessly under the peaceful stars while Igor clocks up the overtime.
In their novel, Pratchett and Gaiman use the “opposite” of a writing cliché that turns it into a humorous, interesting, and original statement. Rather than create a setting of a dark and stormy night, the passage sets forth directly that it “wasn’t” so. This causes the reader to take notice and sets the tone for subsequent inversions of literary tropes, such as the creation of Frankenstein’s monster.
By subverting the reader’s expectations with anti-clichés, Pratchett and Gaiman’s literary work reflects a deeper level of meaning and creative level of writing. These authors acknowledge the writing and works that precede theirs that have, unfortunately, become cliché while simultaneously setting their literary work apart from others as an original experience for the reader.
Example 3: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
In this passage from the novel, the narrator Scout is reminiscing about the story’s setting–both in time and place. Through Scout, Lee alludes to a quote about fear from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address, establishing the time period of the novel’s events. Lee’s allusion is also clever in establishing how that phrase has become a cliché for readers of the novel as well as an adult Scout in remembering the story.
As an overused “catch” phrase from Depression-era America, “nothing to fear but fear itself” has become meaningless and archaic for Lee’s contemporary readers. The phrase holds little meaning and relevance for Scout as an adult as well, as she indicates that even the effect at the time was only one of “vague” optimism. By incorporating this cliché within the setting of the novel, Lee calls the reader’s attention not only to its limited significance decades later, but its hollow and empty meaning shortly after it was originally stated.