Are clichés the Achilles’ heel of our language?


Or do they take one for the team, give 110% and keep us in the loop?

Anyone who talks about writing, or writes about talking, makes a point of condemning dead phrases. These denunciations, while effective and sometimes eloquent, change nothing. The enemies of clichés come and go, but clichés persist.

Everyone seems to agree that clichés stifle writing and thinking. In politics they’re downright dangerous. Václav Havel, hero of the Czech struggle against the Soviets, claims that clichés, by supporting accepted ways of thinking, encourage dictatorships: “The cliché organizes life; it expropriates people’s identity; it becomes ruler, defence lawyer, judge and the law.”

Thirty-five years ago Walter Ong, a great student of language, described the anti-cliché campaign in Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: “Clichés have for many years now been hunted down mercilessly with a view to total extermination.” More recently, Martin Amis expanded that metaphor in his book of essays, The War Against Cliché. Ideally, he claimed all writing opposes cliché, including clichés of the mind and heart. “When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.”

But if you open a newspaper, or watch the TV news, you’re likely to be told that wolves are appearing in sheep’s clothing, someone is killing someone else with kindness, fools aren’t suffered gladly, X is a poster child for Y, and today’s fast-paced society is causing widespread stress.

Meanwhile, some helpful soul will explain (as if it had been discovered recently) that most of an iceberg lies below the water, out of sight, like certain problems. Expressions like these fill the air around us. Just the other night on TV I heard it said that some commentator was a boy crying wolf.

Not that clichés are altogether intolerable. They can produce pleasure. Mixed and mangled, the cliché has a way of enriching dialogue. Watching Corner Gas, the prairie sitcom, I was delighted to hear Hank (a character with limited powers of expression) describe some task as easy because “It’s not rocket surgery.”

Mixed and mangled, the cliché has a way of enriching dialogue. Watching Corner Gas, the prairie sitcom, I was delighted to hear Hank (a character with limited powers of expression) describe some task as easy because “It’s not rocket surgery.”

Observant readers can take innocent pleasure in the appearance of attachment-clichés, in which one word serves as the inevitable accessory of another . In newspapers we write about only one kind of hoax, the elaborate hoax. In book reviews (as Tom Payne noted in the London Telegraph) epics are all sprawling, quibbles minor, insights penetrating and roller coasters emotional. Scholarship, if worn, is worn lightly.

I know people whose faces register delight when some fool says we have to think outside the box. There’s fascination, too, in watching the growth of clichés that pointlessly lengthen sentences. People love saying “on a daily basis,” for instance, using four words where one will do fine, giving their speech an official, memo-like sound. Those who care about language may not like it, but in some ears it sounds appropriate. The late Alistair Cooke’s doctor asked him, “Do you have a bowel movement on a daily basis?” Cooke said no, but he had one daily.

Writers everywhere, following the advice of their teachers and mentors, strain to express themselves freshly. Unfortunately, in the process they create more clichés.

The New Yorker used to carry pieces by Frank Sullivan about a certain Mr. Arbuthnot, who had a cliché to answer every question. Ben Yagoda, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, revived Mr. Arbuthnot and asked him if he still follows clichés. Mr. Arbuthnot replied that he was “all over it, 24/7”: Q Have you noticed any new clichés recently? Mr. Arbuthnot Bottom line: Arguably, this is the cliché’s 15 minutes. I’m talking boomers, Gen X, twenty somethings, foodies, techies, netizens, fashionistas, suits, the flyover people, bean-counters, the punditocracy, eye candy …”

Some of these are quite recent, but a cliché usually takes a long time to show its true nature. Consider “Achilles’ heel,” meaning a fatal weakness in something otherwise strong. In 1810, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Ireland “that vulnerable heel of the British Achilles!” (the earliest use of it in the Oxford Dictionary), it may well have been fresh. In 1864, when Thomas Carlyle identified Hanover as “the Achilles’ heel to invulnerable England,” it wasn’t necessarily outworn. And when George Bernard Shaw used it light heartedly in 1897 (“Divorce is the Achilles’ heel of marriage”) it still had life.

The late Alistair Cooke’s doctor asked him, “Do you have a bowel movement on a daily basis?” Cooke said no, but he had one daily.

But when Tom Zeller Jr. applied it to John McCain on Jan. 29, 2007, in The New York Times, and Maureen Dowd used it about Hillary Clinton in the same paper two days later, they were exhibiting serious authorial exhaustion.

Some phrases become clichés at birth. This category includes The Headline That Can’t Be Stopped. When Argentina fell into a financial crisis, editors simply couldn’t keep themselves from announcing this fact by paraphrasing Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina . An editor at the Economist put together a list of 23 headlines, all of them written at roughly the same moment, perhaps in response to some eerie inner command heard only by copy editors. They ranged from compassionate (“Do Cry for Them, the Argentine People,” from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) through scornful (“Don’t Cry for Free Lunch, Argentina” from the Tampa Tribune) and skeptical (“Time to Cry for Argentina?” from Time magazine) to accusatory (“Don’t Cry for Argentina: The Country’s Catastrophic Economic Woes Were Largely Self-Inflicted” from the Halifax Daily News). All they have in common is the song and the conviction of every single editor (I’m guessing) that this usage was clever.

Perhaps clichés hang on because they tend to sound right. We may not know how a fiddle can be fit, or for that matter unfit, but “fit as a fiddle” has a pleasant, sprightly sound.

A defence of clichés is rare but the other day I came across one and it made sense. Back in 1994, R.R. Goldfine and G.M. King, noted in ETC.: A Review of General Semantics: “We scoff at them, ridicule those who use them and try to avoid them in our writing.” Yet they thrive. How do they do that?

Because, Goldfine and King argued, they perform their assigned tasks. Often a cliché is the most direct way to express a thought. W.H. Auden said that many books are unjustly forgotten but no books are unjustly remembered. Possibly that rule applies also to words, terms, phrases, even comparisons to icebergs. Longevity confirms their value. Like loyal old servants in Chekhov, they show only minimal competence but are always there when needed.



Robert Fulford, "Are clichés the Achilles’ heel of our language?" National Post, (Canada) February 20, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of Robert Fulford.


Robert Fulford has been a journalist since the summer of 1950, when he left high school to work as a sports writer on The Globe and Mail. He has since been a news reporter, literary critic, art critic, movie critic, and editor — on a variety of magazines, ranging from Canadian Homes and Gardens to the Canadian Forum. He was the editor of Saturday Night magazine for 19 years, and since he left that job in 1987 he's been a freelance writer. He writes twice a week in the National Post and contributes a monthly column about the media to Toronto Life magazine and writes for Queen's Quarterly. His most recent book is The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture (1999). Robert Fulford is an officer of the Order of Canada and the holder of honorary degrees from six Canadian universities.

Copyright © 2007 Robert Fulford

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