When first coined, a cliché phrase is interesting and original, but over time, as it’s used more and more, it gets worn out. Its significance and freshness decline until it’s no longer worth using genuinely. Clichés are universally understood within the culture or language they were devised in. It’s going to be very difficult to find someone who does not understand or who has never heard a chosen cliché before (although not impossible). When used in writing, clichés do not leave a good impression on the reader. They can come across and lazy, uncreative, and boring.
Definition of Cliché
The word “cliché” is used negatively to suggest something is unoriginal or un-stimulating. That “thing,” usually a phrase or word that was once quite compelling, has been used so much that it’s lost its interest.
The phrase is used most often to describe expressions, but it might also be used more broadly to speak about ideas, images, plot events, character arcs, or stories that are overused and unoriginal. Some clichés can be so overused that they are actually annoying to hear or read.
Common Examples of Clichés
- I lost track of time.
- Play your cards right.
- Read between the lines.
- Beauty is only skin deep.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
- We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.
- Break the ice.
- What’s done is done.
- To each his own.
- You can’t judge a book by its cover.
- Better safe than sorry.
Examples of Clichés in Literature
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
In Catch-22, Joseph Heller structures his novel around what is now a cliché idea. He coined the term “catch-22,” and it can be seen in the following excerpt:
There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask, and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
The characters know that war itself is crazy but if they refuse to participate that they would themselves be deemed crazy. In this excerpt, the narrator is speaking about
An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope
‘An Essay on Criticism’ was Alexander Pope’s first major poem. It was published in 1711 and contains several quite well-known sayings. For example:
- To err is human, to forgive divine.
- A little learning is a dang’rous thing.
- Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
There is another well-known section of the poem in which Pope uses the following passage to speak directly about clichés:
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 these lines, the speaker alludes to the nature of clichés by presenting them at the end of each line. He even warns the reader in the last line about the effect that clichés can have. They might threaten the reader with “sleep,” another cliché allusion to death.
Discover more of Alexander Pope’s poetry.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In these lines from Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, the narrator, Scout, is speaking about the time period during which the events of the story take place.
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 the last sentence of this excerpt, Scout alludes to the well-loved Franklin D. Roosevelt speech from 1933, during which he used the phrase “nothing to fear but fear itself.” While at the time it was quite impactful (and still is to some extent today when considered in context), the line is undoubtedly a cliché in contemporary literature. It’s unlikely a writer would let a character say this without actively acknowledging that they were references FDR and knew what they were saying was a cliché.
Why Do Writers Use Clichés?
While clichés are usually considered to be negative features of one’s writing, there are ways that they can be used positively. For example, the writer might choose to have one character use them regularly as a way to show their simplistic attitude towards life. They’re satisfied using other people’s words rather than trying to come up with their own way of describing a situation. In another situation, a cliché might be used humorously, to annoy another character, or to emphasize how basic and universal a situation is.
Shakespeare and Clichés
Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare’s works are the source of a few of the most commonly used clichés in the English language. When he used them, they were completely new and original. One of the most interesting examples comes from Hamlet. It reads, “What a piece of work.” When Shakespeare used it, he intended it to mean that human beings were the highest creatures on earth. No other “piece of work” could compare. But, today, it’s used to mean the opposite. It refers to someone who is incompetent or perhaps even dangerous. Some others include:
- Too much of a good thing.
- There’s a method in his madness.
- Mum’s the word.
- The game is up.
- Send him packing.
- Catch a cold.
- Love is blind.
- Wild goose chase.
- A heart of gold.
Related Literary Terms
- Trope: the use of figurative language to make descriptions more evocative and interesting.
- Irony: occurs when an outcome is different than expected. It is possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.
- Archetype: characters, themes, and settings that appear throughout literary works.
- Idiom: a short-expression that means something different than its literal translation.
- Read: 681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing
- Watch: What is a Cliché?
- Watch: 10 Movie Clichés