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August 12, 2001 - Cliches - 2002-01-30

AA: This is Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- the language of cliches.

RS: These are phrases that lose meaning when we use them all the time. Take the expression: 24-7. That's another way of saying "24 hours a day, seven days a week." When I first heard it, it sounded clever. Now it's just time worn.

AA: Same with "issues" as a nicer way to say "problems," as in "that person has issues." The problem is, this well-intentioned euphemism now seems like a cliche. Not long ago, I heard a hiking boot salesman tell a frustrated customer that she had "lacing issues."

RS: So does that mean she had trouble tying her shoes?

AA: Apparently so.

RS: The whole issue of cliches prompted Ben Yagoda, an English professor at the University of Delaware, to write an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He bases his view about how cliches evolve on what the British writer George Orwell had to say, which is that the life span of a cliche often begins with a metaphor.


"Take, as an example, Achilles' heel. Now, 'Achilles' heel' is an expression that means someone's weakness and it comes from the legend of Achilles, who hurt his heel. In researching this piece I wrote I came upon the fact in the Oxford English Dictionary that the first person to use Achilles heel as a metaphor for weaken was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the nineteenth century poet. What a great idea that he had to say 'this character's Achilles' heel was his pride.' The problem was that it was so good that people started copying it, started talking about this person's Achilles' heel, that company's Achilles' heel, and that company's Achilles' heel, until it became a cliche."

AA: Ben Yagoda says according to Orwell, after a long time a popular figure of speech reaches a third stage when it becomes a "dead metaphor."


"And Achilles' heel is at that stage now, where it's sort of gone beyond cliche. No one says that to be clever or even to attempt to say something fresh or stylish. It's now at the stage of being more or less a synonym for weakness."

RS: Despite the love-hate relationship many people have with cliches, Ben Yagoda calls them the "currency of the language."


"To avoid cliches, your speech and your writing would have to consist of either terms that exactly denote what you're talking about, like 'I will move the chair,' 'I will stand up now and go,' totally dull, or constantly be trying to invent new metaphors or new clever, funny, stylish expressions, which is hard. As with the example of Achilles' heel, the good thing about cliches is that they really do express a meaning in an understandable and vivid way."

RS: "Do you have some favorites?"

YAGODA: "Well, let's see, I have things that really..."

RS: "Or really bother you?"

YAGODA: "Bug me, yeah, and I can't explain why. The word 'arguably' ... "

AA: "Yes, yes!"

YAGODA: "You know, it's sort of a cliche, it's also sort of a sloppy way of thinking and writing."

RS: "So how would you say that without using that cliche?"

YAGODA: "Well, it's a hedge word, because without using it you have to say what you really think."

AA: Ben Yagoda says the new thing in cliches is the growing popularity of African American slang beyond black neighborhoods.


"The ones that came to mind were things like 'you go, girlfriend,' 'back in the day, we had it going on,' 'it was old school in the 'hood -- we were keeping it real, 'don't diss that playa -- show him some love, or I'll hit you upside the head,' 'yo, what it is.' You know, African American slang has been historically a very, very rich source of great stuff for the language. The problem is the cliche aspect, also the sort of poseur aspect -- it had a certain kind of authenticity in one context, but if you have a fourteen-year-old suburban white kid saying it, there's something that doesn't quite fit."

AA: English Professor Ben Yagoda at the University of Delaware. And, as cliched as it may sound, that's all for this week on Wordmaster.

RS: Our address is or write to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC two-zero-two-three-seven USA. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "It Takes Blood and Guts to Be This Cool, but I'm Still Just a Cliche"/Skunk Anasie