I’m thinking that familiarity and over-familiarity cannot be the same for different individuals, societies and social niches. In the matter of clichéd expressions therefore, one man’s meat, (there we go again) may indeed be another’s poison. There are obviously time and space elements to the making of a cliché. “Get a life!” blew through rebukesphere in the Western Hemisphere like some hurricane, but before you could say Katrina, it had become clichéd. So did “out of box”. But it’s better to throw “out of box” away as clichéd than the idea it represents. While it was quite redolent among the HR and motivational speech industry in my society, “Get a life!” wasn’t. It is possible that within its short life, “Get a life!” didn’t enter published books by, for example, being captured in fiction dialogues. Editors would ordinarily be more liberal with infractions committed in dialogue than within the author’s narrative. With the over-zealousness to sanitize writing of clichés, it is possible that “Get a life!” would have been lost to published works. That would be unacceptable – a kiss of death for “Get a life!”. Unacceptable, because not only is its classification as cliché, (a clichéd classification) parochial, even a universally-certified cliché will still need to be captured in its dated use. I therefore suspect that the ability to weed scripts of clichés is, at best, of questionable value.
Clichés are time and space-bound and this should modify their universal validity.
While the time dimension appears obvious and is intertwined with the concept of over-familiarity, the spatial dimensions are less obvious. A given community of language users bandy some phrase about and over time, the community grows over familiar with the phrase and it becomes a cliché. Hardly does it occur to this group that the rest of the world carries on with the same phrase in bearish usage. Also, the over-enthusiasm with hunting clichés seems to be mostly a textual obsession. Colloquial grammar is not subject to any censorship for clichés except that hardly done by the speaker. When we get to hear others speak using the self-same expressions regarded as clichés in writing, they don’t sound so clichéd anymore especially where the speaker is not reading from a prepared text. If the “stone’s throw” of my critique session had been spoken instead of written, chances are it’d be overlooked. This raises the question as to whether cliché hunting is not more of an ocular than an auditory obsession. Are clichés so because they’re written and read not spoken and heard?
I’m also distressed for another group of clichés whose damnation is rooted in a different kind of over-familiarity. They are maligned as clichés just because they couldn’t be said any other way. Idioms, adages and aphorisms are cut and dried and any variation of form is frowned at. Ironically, it is the same integrity that becomes the undoing of expressions like “take the bull by the horns”, “raining cats and dogs” and “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. Adages and opaque idioms like these convey a coded meaning that maintains its fidelity in all such similar situations. They offer a shorthand way of conveying a message in not so many words. They are therefore bound to be oft-repeated since they cannot be varied. They come standard, not a la carte.
You could say, “He left the room” in other ways but if you are short of time and words to describe how you wouldn’t agree with your partner’s assessment of a film’s merits but would be ready to concede her entitlement, nothing beats one man’s meat. Cliché hunters will have to decide if they’d rather one man’s meat be another’s fish. Even if society settles for the latter, is there any guarantee that aqua culturists will not be up in arms against the perceived denigration of such a rich proteinaceous source?
In like manner, feminists are bound to challenge the patriarchal tone of the idiom. Deployment of these figures of speech at the right moments should be upheld for what it is – linguistic smarts. Methinks a generation should not, in the guise of cliché-hunting, stamp its more elevated speech modes with the same BB dates it does its chocolate bars.
Have you ever felt self-conscious in your work on account of it being perceived as clichéd?