Trite and True

If you think meme is the sound of an opera singer warming up, you are blessedly innocent to the ways of the web. Memes are images or phrases that are passed along, “from Greek mimēma ‘that which is imitated’” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

It’s a contagious dis-ease.

Long before internet memes, my brother Rabbi Nota Schiller heard someone repeat a vogue expression. He commented that it was like passing around a piece of gum — with everyone taking a turn chewing it.

Clichés start out as clever wordplay, but soon get played out. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times: “Avoid clichés like the plague.”

Digression: A 1735 publication called A Collection of the Most Remarkable Trials of Persons for High-Treason, Murder, Heresy… might be the origin for the “thousand times” cliché. At the trial of Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne for High-Treason, October 1649, the judge, Lord Commissioner Richard Keble, warned the prisoner:

“You ought to make your case, in matter of fact, clear; for that I must tell you again, and once is as good as if I had told you a thousand times over, unless you can clearly do that, you say nothing to it.”

In that spirit, I clearly state that I got caught aiding and abetting the use of clichés. The lexicographic attorney general, Bryan Garner, nailed me. Garner had quoted Christopher Ricks, former president of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers:

“A cliché begins as heartfelt, and then its heart sinks. … The trouble with a cliché like ‘take it to heart’ is that by now it’s almost impossible to take it to heart.”

I asked (innocently, scout’s honor), “Is there ever a good reason to use a cliché? Can it be a serviceable villain — a shortcut to expressing a complex idea?”

Garner replied: “Once in a blue moon.”

I got caught in my own trope.

Before you laugh (OK, you can laugh first), I was in a whale of trouble. I’m a repeat offender. Garner nailed me once before. Harpooned would be more like it.

Jack Lynch is a professor of English and a feisty lexicographer — harmless, but no drudge. He’s also a mooseologist. He tweets moose memorabilia and forgetabilia. In honor of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday, Lynch tweeted a cartoon of a white whale with antlers. I replied, “So that’s how he sunk the Pequod.”

Garner caught me red-antlered and wrote, “Sank the Pequod?”

I replied, “Oops. I’m sunk. Call me Queequeg.”

But (to get back to our subject) what is a cliché?

Eric Partridge, patron saint of word mavens, wrote a Dictionary of Clichés. He frankly admitted having been a “graceless sinner” and saw how such a dictionary could help others.

In his introduction, Partridge said, “If you ask the averagely well educated person, ‘What is a cliché?’ he will look at you in pity and say, ‘Oh, well! you know what a cliché is,’ and hesitate, and stumble, and become incoherent.”

In How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar, William Safire explained:

“A cliché is a turn of phrase that is, not to coin a phrase, plumb tuckered out. (Whenever you see to coin a phrase or as they say, prepare for a cliché; the writer is too self-conscious to use a trite expression without apology.) The French word means ‘stereotype,’ a printing plate, and comes from the German Klitsch, a lump of clay that becomes a mold.”

Safire compared clichés to prefab homes or computer shortcuts. Clichés offer the convenience of “thought-free writing.”

Google, lest they haven’t already dumbed us down enough, recently added a feature to their Gmail service. Instead of having to bother to actually type a few words to a friend, now we are lured to click on a cartoon-like balloon with boilerplate phrases like “Sure thing!” or “That’s awesome.”

The replies sound as authentic as canned laughter. Ironically, Google named the feature “Smart Reply.”

When is it acceptable to use a cliché? (When is the next blue moon?) Even Garner tongue-in-cheekily concedes, “You’ll sometimes need clichés. They’re occasionally just the ticket, but only when no other phrase fills the bill” (Garner’s Modern English Usage).

A trope is a figure of speech or a motif. Lately, it has come to mean a phrase that is associated with a particular idea or group. An overripe trope rots into a cliché. To borrow a coined cliché — trope is the new stereotype.

Recent news stories reported such anti-Semitic tropes as the “dual loyalty” flag waved by some politicians. They are more subtle than the cartoons in Der Stürmer — or the recent ones published by The New York Times, but we all know what they mean.

Clichés, tropes and formulaic characters are the stock in trade of popular fiction. Their familiarity breeds content. They are literary comfort food.

The problem is, besides being mind-numbing, clichéd themes wear out. The industry has to keep churning out a new supply.

As Samuel Goldwyn reportedly said, “Let’s have some new clichés.”

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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