The value of cliches in spoken word

Both in writing and in speech, the use of cliches is often discouraged. Aphorisms such as “love is blind” are an oversimplification of the multifaceted nuances of love as an abstract concept. To call someone “smart as a whip” makes a clear analogy between the movement of a whip and one’s intelligence in a manner than may aptly represent only one type of intelligence — quick, on-your-feet wit — at the expense of forms of intelligence that are slower and more reflective but no less valuable. The adage “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’” is meant to assert the importance of thinking of the whole group and their collective aspiration or capability, but fails to reflect the importance of the individual’s personal role and responsibility as a member of that team. 

All of the above cliches are moralistic claims that speak to common-sense ethical values, but cliche descriptions, which have little moral bearing, demand attention as well. Many poets have spoken of how the wind whispers through the trees, how the horizon is set ablaze at sunset, how a calm ocean sparkles, how the night’s inky darkness can be like an abyss, how an astute observer can seem to have eyes on the back of their head. 

These expressions are all certainly overused and perhaps hackneyed; using them may impede a written work’s creativity and originality, rendering it lackluster and ultimately unimpressive. As someone who writes and reads as a hobby, I will not argue against the claim that cliches should generally be avoided in favor of more unique and imaginative ways of translating one’s thoughts into ink on paper. 

Written communication differs functionally from verbal communication, however, in ways that I believe reopen the possibility for the redemption of the use of cliches. Colloquial speech is less formal than written word, and for good reason: talking to others need not adhere to strict grammatical rules in order to convey its intent. Simple expressions, common abbreviations and other spoken shortcuts often get the job done just fine. 

Cliches are all of the above: common, simple and shortcuts. This, to me, not only justifies their use, but also indicates something really beautiful about them — they are forms of figurative language that can flavor the literal in a way most people would understand. 

Further, I personally loathe the idea that overusing an expression detracts from its meaning. I think people should think what they want, say what they think, and mean what they say, regardless of what exactly that looks like in words. If you see someone with eyes like diamonds, whose silky hair cascades down their back like a waterfall, who gives you butterflies in your stomach, someone who could be the apple of your eye, I do not see a single thing wrong with expressing the infatuation in precisely the terms you think it, cliches and all — why would any of the above descriptions be less flattering simply because they have been thought and said before? How lovely it is that so many people have shared similar visceral experiences, maybe even found themselves so taken aback at the many wonders of being alive that, were it not for the trusty cliche, they would have been at a loss for words. 

This is only one example, of course, and a positive one at that. Cliches do important work in negative situations too — take grief, for example. The passing of a loved one is difficult to process, and it can be difficult to find words to describe what you are going through, how you are feeling or what you need, even if you sincerely want to talk it out. Here, again, the trusty cliche is here for you: you may feel like a light in your life has gone out, or that your world has been turned upside down, or that you have lost a piece of yourself, or any other of the number of cliche expressions that could let you express your feelings without having to bear the burden of finding the right words. 

Cliches can help us understand ourselves. You might be walking on eggshells in a horrendous unhealthy relationship and not realize it until you encounter the expression — the image of the fragile eggshell under your foot as you hopelessly try not to crack it speaks volumes to what it feels like to be held to an unreasonable expectation, the violation of which will mean incurring some undeserved, angry, wrath. 

Cliches are also cultural products — different languages have their own cliche expressions, and the content of those cliches tells us something about the culture that invented them. One example is the Spanish expression “se formó tremendo arroz con mango,” which translates to something like “this turned into a serious bowl of rice with mango.” This is a phrase that simply would not have come to be in the United States, simply because rice and mango are not staple foods in American culture. To say that someone’s “got a kangaroo loose in the top paddock” is so strongly Australian, you probably would have known where the expression came from even if I had not explicitly stated its origin. The French expression “j’ai des rossignols” literally translates to “I’ve got nightingales,” a bird not native to North America. It is used to refer to unexplained noises coming from your car —  how useful is that? 

All these examples also show that what we consider cliche is relative; expressions we’ve run ragged in English are probably pretty interesting to people who are not native English speakers, and cliches in other languages are pretty interesting when translated into English. 

Further, there are a lot of reasons a person may struggle with understanding metaphors, idioms and the likes in conversation; people whose first language is not English or neurodivergent people are two examples, I would speculate, of groups who may find it difficult to interpret non literal expressions, by no means because of personal fault. Cliches are tried and true, basically universally understood, and in this sense, they seem to be a great starting point from which to build an understanding of figurative language. Beating a dead horse, for example, is a jarring and graphic expression, but it does concisely convey the futility of pouring time and energy into something that is already a lost cause, perhaps exactly because it is more violent than explicitly necessary. It both describes a certain sort of event and makes a judgment about an individual’s actions within the circumstances, all in four little words. 

Cliches may not make for great writing, but in everyday conversations, they are our friends. Colloquial communication is not fettered by the same laws and expectations of perfect grammar, or distinctive creativity in one’s style of expression. Saying what you mean can be accomplished quite easily, and arguably eloquently, through the use of cliche, trite phrases that you can reasonably expect others to understand. Anyway, figurative language is fun! There is no harm in piggybacking on the metaphors and idioms others across the history of language have invoked to get a feeling across in fewer words.