(Subtitle for this post: “Avoid Clichés Like the Plague”)
“Pet peeve” is a cliché. “Pet” in this context must mean “favorite.” But “peeve” is an irritation, annoyance, vexation, or exasperation. In context, it usually means something that most frequently annoys or is most frequently noticed; yet, the first word suggests preference, not frequency. It is a phrase that does not mean what it says. The irony is assuredly lost on most of those who resort to this expression.
“Peeve” is itself a fairly new word, fabricated from the adjective “peevish,” which means having an irritable disposition. If you think about it, “peeve” does not identify a “thing,” a “something” that irritates you; it describes you, or at least your attitude towards it.
Nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with a cliché, any more than there is anything inherently wrong with wearing an old pair of sneakers: Maybe they aren’t the prettiest, nor the most functional, but they work — more or less.
The problem with clichés is that they encourage your reader or listener to stop thinking, in much the same way that you stop driving very attentively when you turn onto a familiar street.
Avoiding clichés is a tactic for making what you say more interesting for your reader or audience. Clichés, by their very nature, are dull, banal and unoriginal. They suppress thought rather than stimulate it. Good writing and speaking is creative and expressive. Frequent lapses into clichés create a style of communication that seems immature, sophomoric.
If clichés contain accepted wisdom, they are called “adages” or “proverbs,” and are then graduated into a more respectable category.
Personally, I prefer to limit the term “cliché” to trite, hackneyed banalities, and not to folk expressions or aphorisms, which actually have some content for the mind.
Here are two examples:
- “Pride goeth before a fall.”
- “Diamond in the rough.”
“Pride goeth before a fall” is not a cliché; it’s a proverb. “Diamond in the rough” is a cliché. A long time ago it was a creative way of describing a person, but now, it’s all worn out.
Of course, one generation’s insight can become the next generation’s cliché. Therefore, context will help to guide you in deciding when a string of words is so familiar that it should be abandoned.
Here are a few examples of clichés — phrases that you probably should never write or utter without a wink.
all’s fair in love and war
as old as the hills
avoid [something] like the plague
beat around the bush
bring home the bacon
can’t fix stupid
dead as a door-nail
give 110 percent
gut-wrenching (as applied to pain)
handwriting on the wall
head over heels in love
in the nick of time
love at first sight
low hanging fruit
pot calling the kettle black
read between the lines
scared out of my wits
thick as thieves
think outside the box
time flies when you’re having fun
time will tell
tip of the iceberg
to tell the truth . . .
well-worn (as applied to a cliché)
what goes around comes around
wrong side of the bed
As an extra bonus, here are the lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan’s platitude song from Iolanthe (premiered in 1882). Though it was written over a century ago, the clichés are still very recognizable, even for Americans:
If you go in, You’re sure to win –
Yours will be the charming maidie:
Be your law the ancient saw,
“Faint heart never won fair lady!”
Every journey has an end –
When at the worst affairs will mend –
Dark the dawn when day is nigh –
Hustle your horse and don’t say die!
While the sun shines make your hay –
Where a will is, there’s a way –
Beard the lion in his lair –
None but the brave deserve the fair!
Nothing venture, nothing win –
Blood is thick, but water’s thin –
In for a penny, in for a pound –
It’s Love that makes the world go round!