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What is a Cliche?

Updated on December 1, 2016

A cliche is a stereotyped expression. This definition supplies the key to the origin of the word, which comes from the French verb dicker, meaning "to stereotype" in printing. A cliche is a phrase, not a single word. The corresponding phenomenon in single words is the "vogue" word.

Cliches fall roughly into four groups: idioms so overused that they have become cliches; other phrases, that have suffered the same fate; stock phrases and quotations from Greek, Latin, and modern European languages; and all-too-familiar quotations from English and American literature.

Idiom cliches include such trite phrases as far and wide, heart and soul, much of a muchness, pick and choose, ways and means, bag and baggage, slow but sure; also such metaphors as lead a dog's life and leave a sinking ship; and similes such as fit as a fiddle, large as life, and old as the hills.

Almost as dull as the first group and even deadlier is the very large second group of non-idiomatic hackneyed phrases. These are the most overused of all, the mere counters and substitutes of speech. Yet several of them were, at the time of coining, apt and even picturesque. Among this group are add insult to injury, a fate worse than death, explore every avenue, leave no stone unturned, at the psychological moment, the salt of the earth, speed the parting guest after welcoming [him] with open arms, the wind of change, and the march of time.

In the third group, the most battered of Latin phrases and quotations are perhaps de mortuis (nil nisi bonum), and persona non grata; the prime offenders in French include bete noire, cherchez la femme, and c'est la vie.

The final group, quotations from British and American authors, is so large that any arbitrary selection would be fatuous. The archcriminal is Shakespeare's "To be or not to be, that is the question."

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