Cliché vs. Idiom
In response to a recent post on idioms, a reader asked for a discussion of “the distinction between idioms and clichés.”
In the article referenced, I gave four definitions of the word idiom. Here is the definition closest to the word cliché:
idiom: a construction or usage peculiar to English.
A cliché is an idiom that people notice and find annoying.
Here are three typical definitions of cliché:
A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. (Oxford Dictionaries online)
A trite or stereotyped phrase or expression; also, the idea expressed by it. (Merriam-Webster Unabridged)
An expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. (Wikipedia)
The irritation factor of a cliché depends to a large extent upon the listener or reader.
Three clichés that make me gag are “the elephant in the room,” “a win-win situation,” and “déja-vu all over again.”
On the other hand, I don’t mind “You can’t please everyone,” “This too shall pass,” or “Mi Casa es Su Casa.”
Everyone uses clichés. They are convenient verbal shorthand. If our goal is to be original, then clichés are to be avoided. If we are just making conversation, trying to avoid confrontation, wanting to express a strong feeling, or trying to write a catchy headline, clichés are our friends.
Numerous websites offer lists of clichés. The lists include proverbs, literary quotations, and cultural references as well as convenient phrases that say a lot in a few words.
Here are a few clichés that are alive and well in the media:
alive and well
“still existing or active; often used to deny rumors or beliefs that something has disappeared or declined”
Ex. Email marketing is alive and well, at least for now—Headline, Fortune.
to do an about-face
“to reverse one’s opinion or course of action”
Ex. China Does an About-Face on GMOS—Headline, Bloomberg.
a thorn in one’s side
“a person or thing that repeatedly annoys you or causes you pain”
Ex. Otherwise, [Trevor] seems pretty content. That is, except for one thorn in his side— his hotheaded employee, Kat (Cobie Smulders).—Movie review, Washington Post.
tell it like it is
“describe the facts of a situation no matter how unpleasant they may be”
Ex. R. Kelly promises to ‘tell it like it is’ in memoir—Today, Book News.
to be all ears
“to be waiting eagerly to hear about something”
Ex. Warren Buffett beams in, and everyone’s all ears—Headline, The Australian.
window of opportunity
“a favorable opportunity for doing something that must be seized immediately if it is not to be missed”
Ex. The best window of opportunity we have to improve the brains and lives of the nation’s children is between birth and age 3.—Chicago Tribune.
a witch hunt
“a campaign directed against a person or group holding unorthodox or unpopular views.”
Ex. Those leading the witch hunt twisted what Mr. Hunt was saying into “girls can’t do science,” and cited Marie Curie to prove him wrong.—The Baltimore Sun.
“the underlying or ultimate outcome or criterion”
Ex. Profits are the bottom line of competitive market business enterprises, and they are signaling devices that inform and direct decisions.—Publication of the Office of the Governor, California.
draw a line in the sand
“make it clear that that one has reached a point beyond which one will not go”
Ex. The bottom line is that when you draw a line in the sand and decide that nothing on earth will get you to move it, every student within the four walls of your classroom will be changed because of it.–Classroom management site.
Clichés are idiomatic expressions. They may not contribute to meaning in significant ways, but they do play a part in social interaction. They may not promote fresh thought, but their familiarity makes people feel that they’re in the loop.
in the loop
“aware of information known to only a privileged few”
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