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Clichés and Idioms

Someone (probably Paul Ogden) last month sent me a link to an article by Robert Fulford in the National Post of Canada called, “Are Clichés the Achille’s Heel of Language?” He comes to no conclusion (some clichés are bad; others are OK) but it opened the door to a question I have long pondered: “Why do literary critics and grammarians write so much about clichés but never mention idioms?

What are most often called clichés are, in fact, idioms. For example, if you enter “cat” into the amateurish Cliche-Finder website, the following idioms are produced:

rain cats and dogs
there’s more than one way to skin a cat
let the cat out of the bag
fat cat

These are not clichés but idioms. An idiom is a phrase that is a metaphor of the meaning intended, as cats and dogs really means “heavily, intensely”, while skin a cat in the second example simple mean “do anything”. The entire phrase fly off the handle means “to get angry” while to climb the walls means “to be extremely frustrated”.

These are idioms, phrases that cannot be interpreted word for word and each is, in fact, treated as though it were a single word. Unlike actual words, idioms are stored in the right side of our brain, the side that does holistic thinking. Right-brain thought interprets the world in terms of whole things rather than breaking them down into their individual components for interpretation. That is how we process idioms: pretty much the same way as we process individual words.

Clichés are, as any good dictionary will tell you, trite, overused expressions like sprawling epic, minor quibble, penetrating insight, emotional roller-coaster, mentioned in Fulford’s article. These are not idioms with one meaning, but rather analyzable phrases comprising individual words bundled together. The problem with them is that they are overused when other word combinations are possible, combinations that express more subtle semantic variations.

Clichés are turns of phrase that were original when first used but which have subsequently become boring and wooden, if not stilted. They need to be replaced by fresher metaphors: a hurricane of emotions for emotional rollercoaster, a petty quibble for minor quibble, an eye-opening insight for penetrating insight (or something better).

We could just as well say, expansive epic, broad epic, awkwardly oversized epic, and so on. In each case the phrase’s meaning is changed only by the meaning of the replacement adjective while the meaning of epic remains unchanged. By making such changes in different contexts, however, we achieve a higher level of subtlely and expressiveness.

We do not have this flexibility with idioms. We cannot adjust “fly off the handle” to “fly off the frying pan” or “leap off the handle” and still retain the reference to losing our temper. Unike those of the cliché, the meanings of idioms are tamper-proof.

All we can do to eliminate repetitious idioms from our speech and writing is to avoid them altogether. But avoiding idioms renders language lifeless and academic if not lexically prudish. Idioms are the curve balls of language that shape its character.

We have a separate category of jokes based on the potential literal interpretation of idioms (The flies in our kitchen are so frustrated they are climbing the walls). We play with them every day in other ways, as well. Idioms are, in fact, unavoidable in any written or spoken language that is alive. Long live idioms!

5 Responses to “Clichés and Idioms”

  1. Joan Says:

    It seems to me, then, that an idiom can be a cliche if it is overused.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    “Discovery insight”? Are you serious? That sounds horrible to me. It’s not enough to be different, you have to be semantically sound.

  3. rbeard Says:

    You have a point. It should be better now. These were simply attempts at showing that alternatives to cliches do exist without attempting to create perfect replacements. I think the new one is better.

  4. price Says:

    I actually think that you are conflating cliches with “wedded words”. These are words that frequently appear together, as a chunk, though they are no less overused than cliches.

    Maybe it would be better to think of cliche as a blanket term for overused idioms and wedded words.

    What say ye?

  5. rbeard Says:

    I’ve never heard of “wedded words” but the name seems descriptive of clichés. How would you define “idioms”, “clichés”, and “wedded words” so that they do not overlap?

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