Laid on with a trowel

I imagine we all believe we are original thinkers -that what we have to say breathes the pure, fresh air of novelty, and stands outside the stodgy walls that imprison so many others. Imaginative metaphors are the keys that open prison doors -and any attempt to fill the space with clichés, is to appear as ‘weak as a kitten’. And it is ‘just a matter of time’ before you will have to admit that your words were as ‘old as the hills’, and force you to flee with your ‘tail between your legs’…

Had enough clichés yet…? The word ‘cliché’  -meaning an overused, and usually trite phrase- is of relatively recent coinage, as is the word ‘stereotype’, according to Your Dictionary: ‘When printing presses were used, the cast iron plate that reproduced the words, phrases, or images was called a stereotype. The noise that casting plate made sounded like “cliché,” meaning click, to French printers, so this onomatopoeia word became printer’s jargon for the stereotype. Thus, cliché came to mean a word or phrase that gets repeated often.’

Apart from trying to avoid them, I probably wouldn’t have given clichés much thought had I not stumbled upon an article by Nana Ariel from Tel Aviv University, in Aeon, that pricked my interest: ‘While we tend to condemn clichés harshly, the scholar of rhetoric Ruth Amossy at Tel Aviv University has shown that they’re in fact crucial to the way we bond with and read other human beings… They are a kind of a shared mental algorithm that facilitates efficient interaction and reaffirms social relationships.’

That said, though, they tend to carry the smell of corn with them if they are too easily spotted -especially if they provide no unusual context, or do not uniquely characterize the situation described. They become blisters on the sentence -verbal acne that does little to make the point. But, lest one assume clichés are a modern sin, ‘Awareness of the shortcomings of conventionality is certainly not new. Since antiquity, critics have pointed out the weakness of trite language patterns, and used them as fodder for biting parodies.’ A well-known example is that of ‘Miguel de Cervantes’s character Don Quixote [who] is captive within the heroic clichés of medieval chivalric-romances, which cause him to fight imagined enemies (thus creating the still-in-use ‘tilting at windmills’ cliché).’ My favourite, however, is the treatment of clichés in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in which he ‘rejected the use of clichéd similes to praise one’s beloved (eyes like the Sun, cheeks as roses), stressing the banality and inauthenticity of such ‘false compare’.’

But, as Ariel writes, ‘It’s no coincidence that the term ‘cliché’ was created via a connection with modern print technology. The industrial revolution and its attendant focus on speed and standardisation emerged in parallel with mass media… This stoked fears of the industrialisation of language and thought… It seems to be a distinct feature of modernity, then, that conventionality becomes the enemy of intelligence.’ Even the infamous George Orwell inveighs against the cliché:  ‘In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), he condemns journalistic clichés as dangerous constructs that mask political reality with empty language.’

And yet, let’s face it, one person’s cliché can be another’s metaphor when used in a different context, so ‘using them doesn’t necessarily mean that we are blind-copy machines, unaware of the repetitive nature of language and its erosion. We often use clichés deliberately, consciously and rationally to achieve certain goals…  a single cliché, like a popular meme, is not identical across its different manifestations. A meme can appear in a multitude of forms and, even if it’s only shared with no commentary, sometimes the very act of sharing creates an individual stance. Clichés behave the same way. They are granted new meanings in specific contexts, and this makes them effective in various types of interaction.’

I ‘remain to be convinced’, even though ‘only time will tell’ whether ‘all that glitters isn’t gold’.

But, all the same, I recognize that sometimes I should ‘read between the lines’, and use another ‘diamond in the rough’ that is ‘as old as the hills’…  So, I decided to practice refurbishing clichés on the servers behind the counters in various Food Malls -it would take ‘nerves of steel’ in Starbuck’s and I’m not really as ‘brave as a lion’ there- so I thought I’d start somewhere else first.

The Tim Horton’s coffee stall in the Food Mall of a large Vancouver shopping center seemed ‘as good a place as any’ for a trial run. I had already decided on a plain, uncut, ungarnished twelve-grain bagel that could be transferred immediately and unhindered into a bag, and also a small coffee -my usual order.

“What can I get for you, sir?” the bored young woman asked me without even a ‘token smile’ – of course, she’d probably said the same thing a ‘thousand times already’, judging by the line I’d had to endure just to reach her.

“Well,” I started -nervously, I’ll admit- “I’d like the ‘well-engrained’ bagel.” I thought that was a sufficiently clear description of the 12 grained specimen behind the glass, yet expressed in an obvious cliché to convey my order in an unmistakeable, yet clever twist.

Her already expressionless face went even blanker, and she interrupted me before I could go on. “We don’t have none of those, sir,” she said, attempting a hopeless shrug at my command of her menu.

I decided to go easier on her -it was my virgin attempt, after all. “I’m sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t, “I meant the 12 grained bagel, but I’d like it ‘as clean as a baby’s bottom’ -don’t put anything on it, eh?” The words just fell out of my lips, but I had to smile at my creative use of cliché -even though I’d had to partially explain my meaning.

Her eyes narrowed briefly, but it was enough to trigger an as-yet embryonic smile on her face. “You got kids, sir?” she asked, glancing nervously at the line already lengthening behind me.

I nodded pleasantly.

“Then you’d know they don’t come that way… Anything else, sir?”

“Uhmm, just a coffee,” I answered, wondering if she’d actually understood the double entendre and I was being answered in kind.

“Do you want that clean, too?”

I still wasn’t sure, but I decided to nod anyway, uncertain what adding cream would do to her understanding of the bagel order.

“Twelve-grainer, clean,” she yelled over her shoulder at an older be-gloved woman behind her. Then a grin snuck slowly onto her lips and her eyes twinkled at me. “Sure you don’t want milk for the coffee, sir?” she added in a softer voice to me. “The baby might enjoy it…”

We smiled at each other conspiratorially realizing, as the scholar of rhetoric from Tel Aviv predicted, that we had just shared a mental algorithm to affirm our brief relationship -and the original cliché had morphed silently into a metaphor.


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