The Case for Cliché

by G. Murphy Donovan (June 2012)

“Well over 80 percent of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought.”  –  H. L. Mencken

Beginning an essay or chapter with an adage or aphorism is an antique convention based on several considerations, not the least of which are; humility, prudence, and caution.

Chances are someone has already captured insights on most topics and it helps to let readers know that a writer doesn’t presume to reinvent the wheel. A different spin perhaps, but the humble know that absolute originality of thought or style is as rare as is absolute candor. If a master has already hit the mark, an adage may also sharpen the focus for those who write or read on related matters. Diffidence is often the best discretion.

And prudence dictates that contemporaries seek and acknowledge what has been said or written before, not so much to avoid cliché of word or phrase; but, more importantly, not to create yet another pleonasm. Good writers often collect the adages of their predecessors; the Erasmus collection is the standard. An aphorism is a kind of compact poetry, a fusion of wit and wisdom. Some are clever, some are insightful, and some are just deadly. Some are all three. More than a few come in handy.

The final motive for beginning with another’s micro-poem is caution. Those who read too much remember too little. Writers often don’t recall the origin of a thought or phrasing. Plagiarism is the obvious inadvertent danger; the more subtle hazard is banality. A humorous adage disarms the crank critic too. Those who write too little, carp too much. Writing is to literature as “gambling” is to horse races; money on a sure thing is always a good start.

Graham Greene, a master of metaphor, was fond skewering a cliché with an aphorism. And yes, he claimed that it was his obligation as a writer not to say that a “brook babbled.”

To be fair, words are never adequate to experience. And more words usually mean less meaning. But we read and write nonetheless. Of all words to choose from, English may be the best anyway; voluminous, expansive, and malleable. What of transient meaning or clichés? Clichés revel in repetition and an adage remembered is merely a reader’s homage. 

Serious or tedious words are often a kind of silent shouting. Anger or complexity is ever the enemy of education. Surely volume diminishes argument. Let Kafka, Wittgenstein, or the NY Review suffer for or about meaning, or the lack of it. And with Joyce or Hemingway, is it folk wisdom or just the whisky? Who cares?

Indeed, a platitude may be like a pub sign, more advert than art. Yet, just as all travel is enriched by a better gin joint; all interesting writing is the search for a better metaphor, not more meaning. Shakespeare did not write to enlighten the dons of Oxford. And entertainment is not necessarily the enemy of erudition. A keen word or phrase is often the sheath for a dagger of truth.

An enduring bromide is a kind of rhetorical immortality also. What is immortality, if not memory and repetition? The ancients likened early Europe to “frogs around a pond.” The croakers are still with us. So is the pond. And so are the many riffs of remembered cliché makers. The ace of axioms reminds us that “brevity is the soul of wit.” An American cousin tunes the quill by saying that the difference between the right word and one that is nearly right is like the “difference between lightning and lightning bugs.”

The only necessary virtues for writers and readers are trust, regret, and courage: Trust enough to try; regret enough to see when the mark is missed; and always, courage enough to try again. Trying is the exertion that precedes the prize we may never win. Nonetheless, improvement is every effort’s consolation. Touché cliché!



G. Murphy Donovan writes frequently, with or without wit, about politics and national security.

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