The very first piece of advice that I remember anyone giving me about writing was, “Avoid cliché.” I was ten. I had to look up “cliché”. So now I have a question.
A cliché is a word or phrase so worn out by overuse that it has deteriorated until it is meaningless. It may once have been striking. Today it is white noise.
The gentle reader ignores it. The ungentle critic berates the writer for laziness and lack of originality.
Dickens got away with “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done,” because he thought of it first. After that it became popular, then heard widely, then untouchable by any writer with pretensions to respectability.
Cliché, the Reader’s Friend?
Language is a writer’s basic toolkit. Writers — novelists, playwrights, poets, lyricists, and all the rest — use words to trigger emotional responses or to paint pictures in the minds of their readers and listeners.
How can we fail to see layers of meaning in creations like these?
- the wine-dark sea (Homer, Ancient Greece)
- sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care (Shakespeare: Macbeth, 1606)
- nursing her wrath to keep it warm (Robert Burns: Tam O’Shanter, 1790)
- moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black (Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood, 1954)
English, a pickpocket stealing words?
Day 7 And a day of rest for the industrious Joanna . . .
An author, in Shakespeare’s words, gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. But that still leaves a pretty misty prospect. The habitation has no postcode.
Names often have more substance, admittedly. You only have to think of Sir Toby Belch or the Cheeryble Brothers to realise that. But they’re still in the middle of an open circuit. It needs something else to close it.
fountain power in Battersea Park