Definition and Examples of Cliches

A cliché is a trite expression, often a figure of speech whose effectiveness has been worn out through overuse and excessive familiarity.

"Cut every cliché you come across," advises author and editor Sol Stein. "Say it new or say it straight" (Stein on Writing, 1995). But cutting clichés isn't as easy as pie—or even as easy as one, two, three. Before you can eliminate clichés you have to be able to recognize them. 

Etymology: From the French, "stereotype plate"

Examples and Observations

Live and learn. Stay the course. What goes around comes around.

"The essence of a cliché is that words are not misused, but have gone dead."

(Clive James, Glued to the Box. Jonathan Cape, 1982)

"I think I'll adopt the definition set forth by someone who has thought about clichés longer than I have. In On Clichés (Routledge and Kegan Paul [1979]), a most suggestive treatise, a Dutch sociologist named Anton C. Zijderveld defines a cliché thus:
"'A cliché is a traditional form of human expression (in words, thoughts, emotions, gestures, acts) which—due to repetitive use in social life—has lost its original, often ingenious heuristic power. Although it thus fails positively to contribute meaning to social interactions and communication, it does function socially, since it manages to stimulate behavior (cognition, emotion, volition, action), while it avoids reflection on meanings.'
"This is a definition that doesn't, you might say, throw the baby out with the bathwater; it leaves no stone unturned while offering several blessings in disguise, and in the final analysis provides an acid test. You might say all this, that is, if you have an ear dead to the grossest of clichés."

(Joseph Epstein, "The Ephemeral Verities." The American Scholar, Winter 1979-80)

"People say, 'I'm taking it one day at a time.' You know what? So is everybody. That's how time works."

(Comedian Hannibal Buress, 2011)

"I sailed through a logjam of dead literary clichés: snow-capped peaks above, fathomless depths below; and, in the middle of the picture, the usual gaunt cliffs, hoary crags, wild woods and crystal cascades."

(Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau, 1999)

Avoid Clichés

"Clichés are a dime a dozen. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. They've been used once too often. They've outlived their usefulness. Their familiarity breeds contempt. They make the writer look as dumb as a doornail, and they cause the reader to sleep like a log. So be sly as a fox. Avoid clichés like the plague. If you start to use one, drop it like a hot potato. Instead, be smart as a whip. Write something that is fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack. Better safe than sorry."

(Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. Mentor, 1985)

Types of Clichés

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder is a proverb cliché indicating that, if two people who love each other are separated, the separation is likely to intensify their love for each other.​
"Achilles heel is an allusion cliché meaning a weak spot, a flaw that makes one vulnerable.​
"Acid test is an idiom cliché referring to a test which will either prove or disprove the truth or worth of something.​
"Age before beauty is a catchphrase cliché supposedly used when allowing someone older to go before one into a room, etc., although this seems rather arrogant if used seriously.​
"Alive and kicking is a doublet cliché, both words in the context meaning much the same thing.​
"Avoid like the plague is a simile cliché meaning to avoid contact as much as possible."

(Betty Kirkpatrick, Clichés: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained. St. Martin's Press, 1996)

Stale Metaphors and Poor Excuses

"When metaphors are fresh they are a form of thought, but when they are stale they are a way to avoid thought. Tip of the iceberg offends the ear as a cliché, and it offends reason because it is imprecise, if not spurious—just as when people say, 'And the list goes on,' and one knows that they have actually run out of examples. Often the writer will try to excuse the cliché by acknowledging it ('the proverbial cat that ate the canary') or by dressing it up ('the icing on the marketing cake'). These gambits never work."

(Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Random House, 2013)

Recognizing and Evaluating Clichés

"Our writers are full of clichés just as old barns are full of bats. There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one and had better be removed."

(Wolcott Gibbs)

"You probably haven't lived as long as, say, your storytelling uncle, so how can you be expected to know a cliché if you write one? The best way to develop an ear for clichés (as well as for originality) is to read as much as you can. There is also that most useful weapon in any battle, the one you are developing every day—experience."

(Steven Frank, The Pen Commandments. Pantheon Books, 2003)

"It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue."

(Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot, 1997)

"Some clichés were quite apt when first used but have become hackneyed over the years. One can hardly avoid using the occasional cliché, but clichés that are inefficient in conveying their meaning or are inappropriate to the occasion should be avoided."

(M. Manswer, Bloomsbury Good Word Guide, 1988)

"You might . . .want to base your notion of the cliché not on the expression itself but on its use; if it seems to be used without much reference to a definite meaning, it is then perhaps a cliché. But even this line of attack fails to separate cliché from the common forms of polite social intercourse. A second and more workable approach would be simply to call a cliché whatever word or expression you have heard or seen often enough to find annoying."

(Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1989)

Mr. Arbuthnot, the Cliché Expert

"Q: Mr. Arbuthnot, you are an expert in the use of the cliché as applied to matters of health and ill health, are you not?
A: I am.
Q: In that case, how do you feel?
A: Oh, fair to middling. I suppose. I can't complain.
Q: You don't sound so awfully chipper.
A: What's the use of complaining? I hate people who are always telling their friends about their ailments. O-o-h!
Q: What's the matter?
A: My head. It's splitting. . . .
Q: Have you taken anything?
A: I've taken everything but nothing seems to do me any good.
Q: Maybe you're coming down with a cold.
A: Oh, I always have a cold. I'm subject to colds.
Q: There's certainly quite a lot of 'em around.
A: You know, I'm supposed to say that. I'm the cliché expert around here, not you."

(Frank Sullivan, "The Cliché Expert Doesn't Feel Well." Frank Sullivan at His Best, Dover, 1996)

Stock Comparisons in 1907

"The following interesting lines, of which the composer is unknown, contain all the stock comparisons most frequently used in conversation, arranged in such a manner as to rhyme:
As wet as a fish—as dry as a bone,
As live as a bird—as dead as a stone,
As plump as a partridge—as poor as a rat,
As strong as a horse—as weak as a cat,
As hard as a flint—as soft as a mole,
As white as a lily—as black as a coal,
As plain as a pikestaff—as rough as a bear,
As light as a drum—as free as the air,
As heavy as lead—as light as a feather,
As steady as time—uncertain as weather,
As hot as an oven—as cold as a frog,
As gay as a lark—as sick as a dog,
As slow as the tortoise—as swift as the wind,
As true as the Gospel—as false as mankind,
As thin as a herring—as fat as a pig,
As proud as a peacock—as blithe as a grig,
As savage as tigers—as mild as a dove,
As stiff as a poker—as limp as a glove,
As blind as a bat—as deaf as a post,
As cool as a cucumber—as warm as a toast,
As flat as a flounder—as round as a ball,
As blunt as a hammer—as sharp as an awl,
As red as a ferret—as safe as the stocks,
As bold as a thief—as sly as a fox,
As straight as an arrow—as crook'd as a bow,
As yellow as saffron—as black as a sloe,
As brittle as glass—as tough as gristle,
As neat as my nail—as clean as a whistle,
As good as a feast—as bad as a witch,
As light as is day—as dark as is pitch,
As brisk as a bee—as dull as an ass,
As full as a tick—as solid as brass."

(Pictorial Comedy: The Humorous Phases of Life Depicted by Eminent Artists, Vol. 17, 1907)

The Lighter Side of Clichés

"That's the way with these directors: they're always biting the hand that lays the golden egg."

(attributed to Samuel Goldwyn)

"Shortly after returning from his tour of the Near East, Anthony Eden submitted a long-winded report to the Prime Minister on his experiences and impressions. [Winston] Churchill, it is told, returned it to his War Minister with a note, 'As far as I can see you have used every cliché except "God is love" and "Please adjust your dress before leaving."'"

(Life, Dec. 1940. Churchill denied that the story was true.)

"[Winston] Churchill was once asked why he never began a speech with 'It gives me a great deal of pleasure . . ..' He replied: 'There are only a few things from which I derive great pleasure, and speaking is not one of them.'"

(James C. Humes, Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History's Greatest Speakers. Three Rivers Press, 2002)

"Reginald Perrin: Well, we meet in altered circumstances, CJ.
CJ: We do indeed.
Reginald Perrin: The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
CJ: I couldn't put it better myself.
Reginald Perrin: The night is darkest before the storm.
CJ: Precisely. I didn't get where you are today without knowing that the night is darkest before the storm.
Reginald Perrin: Now tell me, CJ. Do you think you can work happily with me as your boss?
CJ: If you ask me a straight question, I'm going to give you a straight answer. I've always taken great pains not to talk in clichés. A cliché to me is like a red rag to a bull. However, there's an exception that proves a rule, and there is a cliché which fits my situation like a glove.
Reginald Perrin: And that is?
CJ: Necessity is the mother of intention. In other words, Reggie, I am forced to consider working for you."

(David Nobbs, The Return of Reginald Perrin. BBC, 1977)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Cliches." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Cliches. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Cliches." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).