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Clichés: Corpses from the Necropolis of Dead Metaphors

There once lived a woman who hated clichés. This post is intended to explicate her linguistic animus.

Clichés exist in every language. They are typically old, worn-out, fatigued figures of speech which have fossilized through constant use into words and phrases that have a rigid meaning and are repeated ad nauseam because they render complex semantic relations compactly.

Here is a contemporary example, in context, of a tired trope, perfect storm (meaning a confluence of events that drastically aggravates a situation):

“You had this perfect storm [emphasis added] where in his Middle East speech Obama didn’t explain very well what he meant by ‘land swaps,’ Netanyahu was so upset by the mention of 1967 borders that he basically mischaracterized the president’s proposal for four days, and as a result the whole visit became hyperpartisan at a time when Israel was looking for bipartisan support from the United States,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. (James Kitfield, “Netanyahu’s ‘Unvarnished Truth’ Tour,” www.theatlantic.com, May 25, 2011)

Instead of saying “a confluence of events” the writer has resorted to this tired cliché. It may be more apt than usual, given the politically fraught context, but it is nonetheless a token of a mental slovenliness that elicits stylistic contempt. Perhaps only a deliberate revivification of the phrase via semantic disinterment (e. g., “the perfect storm didn’t have much wind at its back” ) could ever hope to rescue this freshly-laid corpse––along with all its lifeless congeners––from their tropological resting place. R. i. p. would be a fitter fate.


2 Responses to “Clichés: Corpses from the Necropolis of Dead Metaphors”

  • Julia Arvin says:

    I think that in addition to linguistical laziness, the use of cliches allows a group of people to exclude those on the fringes of the group, thereby assuming a feeling of self-importance, while at the same time not requiring any single member of the group to take responsiblity to act. For example, a business meeting with the final agreement to “Instead of drinking the Kool-Aid, let’s try to drill down and think outside the box so we can circle back to this next month and try to get a seat at the table.”

    • Thanks for your comment, Julia. I hadn’t considered the possibility of clichés being used as a marker of some sort of in-group exclusivity, but you’re obviously right.

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