We Need to Talk About Clichés (part 1)

Cliché

NOUN

  1. A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought
  2. A very predictable or unoriginal thing or person
  3. PRINTING, chiefly British – A stereotype or electrotype

In the early nineteenth century the technical printing term cliché (from clicher – ‘to click’) was coined to describe the sound of a mould striking molten metal. The figurative meaning, to identify a hackneyed phrase or idea arrives much later in the 1880s. The etymology is instructive, I think, in helping us grasp the iniquity of the cliché and to consider why we need to teach our pupils to avoid them in their reading and writing. In printing, a mould or cast is vital. Making the same stamp, impression and type creates consistency and reliability. Nobody would want to read sentences comprised of different sized and shaped fonts. In writing, predictability is the enemy. Originality of expression and ideas are the magic ingredient all good writers seek.

In his excellent collection of essays and reviews The War Against Cliché, the novelist Martin Amis asserts:

‘all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and of the 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.’

So while the title may sound pretentious, I think that it gets to the heart of the teacher of English’s mission: keeping clichés in check.

Now, I know that perhaps some of you are thinking the opening of this blog is somewhat clichéd in itself:

  • The title. Yes, we get that it’s an intertextual reference to Lionel Shriver’s morbidly splendid novel We Need to Talk About Kevin but there’s since been hundreds of columns and articles starting with ‘We Need to Talk About…’. Once Alan Partridge got his hands on the title it was already a moribund allusion.
  • Starting a blog on a topic with dictionary definition of said topic. When did that become obligatory?
  • There’s some hackneyed phrases here: ‘gets to the heart of’, ‘keeping…in check’ Bloody hypocrite!

But, I know that some of you will have also noticed that I’ve done this deliberately to illustrate the point and create a nice little game of Spot the Cliché. See, because we are skilled writers and readers, we can, in our ironic, post-modern way, play around with words and offer knowing winks to our skilled readers through our lexical choices. Less confident readers and writers can’t do that. Like the virtuoso classical musician who plays discordant jazz, we can break the rules precisely because we’ve learnt them.

Having said that, there will inevitably be other clichés that slip through the net; my other blogs aren’t on this topic and I bet if you go back through them you’ll spot some stinkers within seconds. My defence is that I write my blogs quickly (I’m a busy man with young kids, and a wife who sometimes likes to see me). When I wrote journalism I would spend hours checking drafts to seek and destroy them with extreme prejudice. Yet, the larger point about the prevalence of the cliché still holds. There are so many of them that they are impossible to avoid. The legendary journalist and editor Harold Evans, whose classic book Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers contains a helpful list of particularly stale clichés states that all we can do is ‘ration them and tolerate only the best’.

I agree. The fight against cliché is unwinnable. Like creeping ivy, the best we can do is hack it back and only allow it to cover even uglier constructions.

Teaching pupils to avoid clichéd diction and thought must be done explicitly. Let’s begin by looking at teaching the avoidance of cliché in pupils’ writing. Here’s some of the things, off the top of my head, that I did last year:

  1. Set pupils a trap. Give them a list of unfinished similes and get them to fill in the gaps: As fast as _________, The ball went it to net like __________ etc. Watch as most pupils automatically opt for the lazy option (a cheetah, lightning, Usain Bolt; a rocket, a missile).
  2. Have a conversation about why these choices are too obvious. Discuss less obvious answers.
  3. Get pupils to compose fresh, original similes. Or subvert the cliché (‘John ran for the bus as fast as a cheetah. Unfortunately, the cheetah he ran like was arthritic and had three legs.) Or better still, look at alternative ways to express the thought.
  4. Get them to write a list of clichés on a given topic against the clock. ‘Time’ works well. So does ‘Love’.
  5. Expand this idea so they write the most trite and hackneyed love poem of all time.
  6. Give them something that you’ve written that is of a high quality but let down by a couple of clunkers. The best thing about this is when they continue to notice your clichéd offerings weeks after you’ve moved on to another topic.
  7. Talk about the difference and overlap between cliché, idiom and proverb.
  8. Give them a visual stimulus and, in pairs, get them to write two openings – one full of overused phrases and one that avoids them like the plague.

So far we’ve mainly focussed on the clichéd expression. What of the ‘clichés of the mind’? I often begin teaching pupils about the rejection of predictable plotting and lame endings through the use of films. We discuss our most disliked openings and endings to films, zooming in on certain generic conventions such as the necessity for the superhero to be virtually dead before he can finally vanquish his nemesis. This can be linked very nicely with Todorov’s narrative stages to help pupils jettison unnecessarily long and dull openings that favour explanation of the equilibrium rather than a more enigmatic in media res disruption. We discuss the horrors of the ‘and it was all just a dream’ ending and talk about how much information we really need to give the reader at the denouement. Cliché and structure go hand in hand.

Next time, I’ll be looking at how we can use our newfound knowledge of the war against cliché in our own writing to better prepare us for evaluation of a famous writer’s work when reading.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

 

 

 

 

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