Ashley Davies: When only a cliché will suffice

William Shakespeare is the master behind such cliches as 'break the ice' and 'play fast and loose'. Picture: Getty
William Shakespeare is the master behind such cliches as 'break the ice' and 'play fast and loose'. Picture: Getty
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Clichés do not deserve their bad reputation, and at their best they can make us look at the world with fresh eyes, argues Ashley Davies

MY MOTHER often jokes that Shakespeare’s work is good despite being packed with clichés. He’s responsible for hundreds of expressions that are deployed so often (“break the ice”, “play fast and loose”, “wild goose chase”) that we forget their origin and their strength. Certain groupings of words evolve into clichés simply because they are so effective, and while most clichés, at the end of the day (see what I did there?) are no more than padded linguistic crutches, the good ones can be exquisite and need to be appreciated for the bullets of wisdom that they are.

As Orin Hargraves puts it in his book, It’s Been Said Before – A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés: “A quality of clichés that is typically overlooked when people are disparaging them is that many of them are really very clever and original. Or rather, they were very clever and original the first time they appeared... Clichés are very often a victim of their own early success.”

He suggests that people who care about words don’t necessarily have to ditch the clichés, but to “make peace with” these successful linguistic memes and, in doing so, be motivated to find alternatives to them. I’m certain he’ll be relieved to know that I couldn’t agree more, but I still think we should all take some time to chomp on a metaphorical pipe, stare into the fireplace and visualise the origins of these once fresh metaphors.

Animal-related clichés are some of the most charming. My cat doesn’t mind getting petted, but it’s all strictly on her terms; if I stroked her against the direction of her fur I’d end up in hospital. Then I’d know I’d rubbed her up the wrong way. When the cat encounters the neighbouring dog it really puts her back up. Whenever someone uses this expression it’s hard not to picture them arched up like a furious feline trying to gain some crucial fighting volume. I shall try it the next time someone frightens me on the night bus.


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“Keeping the wolf from the door” conjures up dark fairytale scenarios, and “barking up the wrong tree” is just funny for anyone who’s ever known a stupid dog. Whoever first came up with the idea of an “elephant in the room” deserves a trophy for this vivid, if unlikely, scenario, and “dog whistle” politics is chilling – just as only dogs can hear certain sounds, only like-minded bigots will recognise certain signals. Having grown up in hot countries, I have literally had ants in my pants several times and would argue that this sensation should never be downplayed. “A fly in the ointment” is succinctly nauseating but could perhaps do with a Hargravian updating – a “cockroach in the quinoa”, perhaps?

There are plenty of attractive clichés about people’s state of minds. “Keeping body and soul together” is a beautiful way to think about being alive, and my friend is fond of “best foot forward”. She says: “It conjures up a cheery, indomitable will; very Boy Scout optimism without mention of presumably having to drag the worst foot behind.”

One wonders how many times and in what kind of situation somebody got their knickers in a twist for that term to have lost its elasticity through over-use. Perhaps it is linked with a time when “you were just a twinkle in your father’s eye”. It takes two to tango. I’ve tried it alone and I looked stupid and couldn’t blame anyone else.

Politics and sport are fertile cliché grounds. Kicking something into the long grass is now a knackered old expression, but I do love the idea of fusty old politicians trundling off to spend an eternity looking for something in the unkempt areas off the (level) playing field. That’s why you really must keep your eye on the ball. And the original TV production of House of Cards is to blame for thousands of people thinking that saying “You may say that; I couldn’t possibly comment” passes for wit. It should be banned.

There are plenty of clichés that irk me either because I don’t understand them or I just don’t get where they come from. I’m not fond of giving someone the “heads up” because it doesn’t make any sense to me and, perhaps more importantly, I never know where the apostrophe should go, or if it even needs one.

Others I find bewildering are “have your cake and eat it”; “the bee’s knees” (in what way would they, or the bollocks of a dog, be considered impressive?); “the pot calling the kettle black”; “having a bone to pick”; to “cut your teeth” on something and “kicking your heels”. “With all due respect” is just a way of saying: “Brace. Brace. I’m about to lacerate your feelings.”

There are some deliciously evocative clichés that have military or seafaring origins. I didn’t know until quite recently that a “basket case” was originally a soldier who’d lost all his limbs and was therefore of no use and will never again use that term lightly.

“Dying with one’s boots on”, “taking flak”, “friendly fire” and “keeping one’s powder dry” all deserve to be used with more thought too. Being “hoisted by one’s own petard” might sound like a comical mishap in a ballet class but it was a nasty, painful mistake for a sailor to make.

The world of business – and its evil step-child The Apprentice – is responsible for perpetuating some truly revolting clichés. To what plate do those thrusting young execs think they are stepping up? And what is the box outside which one should think? Who pushed what envelope where? I know what working hard is but I’m terrified of what playing hard might involve. Should one bring a helmet? “No brainer” hurts my brain; it’s supposed to mean something that’s so obvious you don’t have to think about it but, to me, it’s nonsense.

On the other hand, those business types aren’t aiming to delight us with their linguistic elegance and attacking them for this is like going for the “low-hanging fruit” – one of the most delicious clichés of all.