Been There, Said That

Jeanne Matthews 2Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

The word cliché is borrowed from the French verb cliquer, which means “to click.” Back in the day when metal type had to be set on a printing plate, it made a clicking sound when moved. To save time, typesetters anticipated the recurrence of certain stock phrases and prepared ready-made blocks of these so-called “stereotypes” to plug into the text wherever they cropped up.

Cliché first appeared in an English dictionary in 1888, and from that time on, it’s been a dirty word. Writers avoid them like the pla – like the poisonous puffer fish. The problem lies in the sheer numbers of stock phrases, platitudes, and tropes we have to avoid. There are more than you can shake a… a laser pointer at. Some express a complicated idea effectively, economically, and with wit. For a phrase to catch the popular fancy so much that people repeat it over and over again, it has to have been pretty clever when first coined. The cleverest and most useful sayings spread like wildfire – a cliché that dates from the Middle Ages and referred to a Greek incendiary weapon that continued burning even while floating on water.

Many clichés derive from the Bible, from Shakespeare, from the sayings of Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin, and quite a few derive from historical events. The etymologies can be fascinating. “To turn a blind eye” comes from a famous naval battle. During the battle of Copenhagen in 1801, a superior officer commanded the one-eyed Admiral Horatio Nelson to retreat. Nelson supposedly turned the telescope to his blind eye, deliberately failing to see his superior’s signal.

At one time or another, we’ve all probably owned a “white elephant.” Turns out that when an ancient Siamese king took a dislike to one of his subjects, he gifted him with an actual elephant. The creature was sacred, and therefore couldn’t be killed, but so expensive to feed and care for that it drove the unlucky recipient to financial ruin.

One of the oldest clichés is “as dead as a doornail.” It comes from a French poem translated into English by William Langland in 1350. By the time Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, it had been circulating for a couple of hundred years.

Charles Dickens had fun with the door-nail in A Christmas Carol:

“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know of my own knowledge what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was dead as a door-nail.”

Dickens was dead on. People do like to speak in similes. They also like to speak in clichés. There are sports clichés, military clichés, political clichés, journalistic clichés, law clichés, and business and technology clichés. But for the serious writer, there can be NO clichés. Only a hack resorts to the hackneyed. We creative types think outside the crate, push the thingy you mail letters in, infuse our prose with a breath of fresh, er, cannabis? Whatever. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, writers must be constantly jumping off cliffs and inventing original ways of describing the experience on the way down.

Stock characters and situations are another form of cliché. The mystery reader recognizes the hard-bitten, loner detective with a drinking problem right off the ba – the Louisville slugger. The TV viewer knows the sexy blonde with the secret past like the back of his palm-held digital device. While critics sneer and roll their eyes, the enduring popularity of familiar types and predictable plotlines proves that a significant part of the reading and viewing public enjoys such fare. The trick for a good writer is to balance what’s expected with unforeseen twists and moments of surprise.

Where the Bones are BuriedThere may be nothing new under the sun, but oft-used phrases tend to lose their punch and become annoying. Each of us has a particular cliché that gets our go – our inner bearded ruminant, and makes us want to wail and gnash our molars.

“What part of ‘you said it already” don’t you understand?”
“Don’t even go there.”
“There’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me.”
“That’s it! You’re off the case!”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

When this sort of imitative dialogue incites you to hurl a book against the wall, hold on to your hor – herbivorous mammals. Clichés aren’t the worst literary crime. A clearly understood cliché trumps a confusing substitute or an elegant variation. Besides, it’s impossible to eliminate every trite expression from the language. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Same old, same old.

9 thoughts on “Been There, Said That

  1. Jeanne, I loved this. Cliches have become such a big part of the way we communicate, that it is hard to banish them. They are like a shorthand, and people recognize them and know what we mean. It doesn’t take long for a saying to become a cliche. Consider the now often quoted, “You had me at hello.”


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