What is a Cliché?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

A cliché is language that has lost its freshness and registers with a listener or reader as overused and boring. Although the term cliché is often is used to refer to language that has been overused over a long period of time, it is not necessarily true of older expressions and, by definition, may be true of new language that has been repeated too often.

Saying that something is as white as milk can be a cliché.
Saying that something is as white as milk can be a cliché.

Reuse in and of itself does not create cliché. For example, language used over many years, sometimes hundreds, in ceremonies, rituals, courts, and governance is considered proper and fitting for its use and seems to stand outside of time. Language like

A common cliche is the phrase "Blind as a bat."
A common cliche is the phrase "Blind as a bat."

• “I second the motion”
• “I now pronounce you man and wife”
• "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
• “Happy Birthday!”

"Drunk as a skunk" is a common cliche phrase.
"Drunk as a skunk" is a common cliche phrase.

are part of the form and content proper to certain occasions and live on with them. These phrases are not considered to be clichés.

The phrase "strong as an ox" is a cliché.
The phrase "strong as an ox" is a cliché.

Often the language that is now considered cliché is language that was, at one time, new and fresh, such as figures of speech. Today, “as red as a rose” is recognized pretty universally as a cliché, but at some time, it must have been fresh and inventive figurative language. In fact, there’s a small set of clichés that are similes containing color words:

• black as pitch/coal/soot/a crow
• green as grass
• white as a sheet/a ghost/snow/milk

Another set of simile clichés are built around animals

• busy as a bee
• drunk as a skunk
• free as a bird
• happy as a lark
• poor as church mice
• quiet as a mouse
• sick as a dog
• slippery as an eel
• sly as a fox
• blind as a bat
• strong as an ox

And there are many with different points of reference, each of which is considered a cliché:

• blue in the face
• cool as a cucumber
• cute as a button
• dumb as a post
• easy as pie
• fit as a fiddle
• flat as a board/pancake
• good as gold
• hard as nails
• high as a kite
• light as a feather
• mad as a hatter
• nutty as a fruitcake
• old as the hills
• pleased as punch
• pretty as a picture
• pure as the driven snow
• right as rain
• sharp as a tack
• thick as pea soup
• tickled pink
• ugly as sin

Besides comparisons, proverbs, sayings, adages, and the like are also likely to become clichéd after repeated use. Examples of this type of cliché include:

• You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
• You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
• What goes around comes around.

Because using a cliché can lose the attention of your audience, whether you’re writing or speaking, you may wish to keep it in mind when you review your work. Of course, there’s one way you can still use hackneyed, trite language without it being a cliché: just use it with irony, and all of a sudden, it will come to life again.

Animals figure in cliches, such as "sick as a dog" and "you can't teach an old dog new tricks."
Animals figure in cliches, such as "sick as a dog" and "you can't teach an old dog new tricks."
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

Leonidas226

Another French word that is similar in meaning to "cliche" is "passe," which is often used to refer to more highbrow issues than "cliche," including fashion.

Qohe1et

Cliche terms are often being recycled, and new expressions are introduced on a regular basis. Some go out of style due to being an anachronism, but some are left over even today after centuries, outliving even the usage of the words inside of them. Expressions like "warp and weft" or "wreak havoc" seldom see their words alone. No one uses the word "wreak" in a context besides this phrase nowadays.

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