Cliché vs. Idiom

By Maeve Maddox

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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.

bottom line
“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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5 Responses to “Cliché vs. Idiom”

  • Roberta B.

    I had a good laugh at source of the example for “bottom line.”
    “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”

    Makes me wonder what the line following that quote said – maybe something like: “They are a signaling device that inform and direct decisions by officials in the Governor’s Office and State legislature to keep raising taxes and adopt more regulation to achieve a bottom line of $0.” The last thing the Governor of this State wants to see are profits on the bottom line – after taxes, of course.

  • Jim Porter

    Speaking of cliches, this is part of an introduction I once used in Toastmasters. I can’t now remember what the time of the exercise is called, but its purpose to condition you to extemporaneous speaking:

    “Believe it or not, if I have told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times that cliches are here to stay. Over and Over and Over again since time immemorial, I have said to you that everything has to start somewhere.

    “So this morning, I want you to give quick thought to when something was said for the first time. I will give you the saying, and you tell us the first time it was ever used.

    “Then quick like a bunny, tell us in your best sotto voce those circumstances. You’ll be glad you did.”

    Some of the cliches:
    “10-4, good buddy.” (The respondent said that it was a misunderstanding. The trucker thought it was “10-4, good bunny.”)

    “Hey, Dude. Let’s party.” (Another misunderstanding, the respondent said. The statement was, “Hey, Jude. Let’s potty.”)

    “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

    And so forth. (It was a from a gal who wanted to sew third.)

  • JG

    The only thing annoying about idioms is that people LET them be annoying! Are you annoyed by overuse of the fridge or oven? Bathroom? No! So why the heck are people bothered by cliches? I think we are trained to think this way. English teachers beat this crap into us, but if they didn’t call attention to it, then none would notice! I swear, if all remain clichephobic, we are doomed to a cliche shortage for even fresh cliches will become cliche. It is a vicious cycle that will leave us speechless. Everything is bound to be “too well known”. >:(

  • Ravi Dhillon

    Amen, JG! Cliches are cliches for a reason. Clichephobia is much worse than the use of cliches. Get over it, speech-overseers.

  • Paul

    Well said, JG! You’ve nailed it. I enjoy using clichés here and there, and anybody who looks down on me because of that can go stuff themselves. 🙂

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