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Every Dog Will Have His Cliché

Scribe smallI am going to start with a little tale from the past. History is a passion of mine, particularly the history of words, writing, and books. In 1450 CE, goldsmith-turned-printer Johannes Gutenberg popularized moveable type, and books left the hallowed confines of scriptorium walls for the libraries and studies of anyone with ready cash and the ability to read. (Note: The Chinese and Koreans had moveable type as early as the 11th century, but, given the intricacies of their ideographic languages, a proliferation of books was not immediately forthcoming.)

Printing-Press-1568 As revolutionary as Gutenberg was, each word on each page still had to be set individually. Once an edition came off the presses, the type was knocked down and used for the next project. This was labor intensive, to say the least, particularly if a book became an unexpected bestseller and merited a second edition. All those pages would have to be reset. Thank goodness printing technology upgraded over the years. In 1725, William Ged, also a goldsmith – though this time a practical Scot – came up with a brilliant idea. He used his metallurgical skills to make casts (flongs) of entire pages of type which could be used over and over again until they wore out. These casts were known as stereotypes. Or, as the French called them, clichés.

1219782482yLCfpgOffset and desktop publishing have replaced the old presses, yet clichés remain. Originally as bright and sound as new-mint pennies, over the years these pithy bits of cultural shorthand have lost their luster and their once-naked truth has all but melted into thin air. (Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare!)

Fun though playing with clichés can be, standard editorial advice is to avoid them like the plague. And I won’t disagree. We may be casual about such things in our everyday exchanges, but our literary endeavors demand better of us. Use your imagination; turn your own phrase rather than use one as stale as Bounty hardtack. It gives your writing originality and force easily lost in a moss-backed thicket of hackneyed phrases.cliche-2

If – and it does happen – you find only well-worn words will do, be self-aware and discriminating in their use. A little cheekiness doesn’t hurt, either. As wonderful as the Bard’s lines are – or Lewis Carroll’s or Voltaire’s or various scriptures’ – remember they belong to other pens, other voices.

To thine own, be true.

A few familiar phrases from the Swan of Avon:

  • All that glitters is not gold
  • All’s well that ends well
  • As good luck would have it
  • Bag and baggage
  • Be-all and the end-all
  • Beggar all description
  • The better part of valor is discretion
  • Brave new world
  • Break the ice
  • Brevity is the soul of wit
  • Refuse to budge an inch
  • Cold comfort
  • Conscience does make cowards of us all
  • Dead as a doornail
  • Dog will have his day
  • Eaten me out of house and home
  • Faint hearted
  • Fancy-free
  • Forever and a day
  • For goodness’ sake
  • Foregone conclusion
  • The game is afoot
  • Give the devil his due
  • Good riddance
  • It was Greek to me
  • Heart of gold
  • ‘Tis high time
  • Hoist with his own petard
  • Ill wind which blows no man to good
  • In a pickle
  • In my heart of hearts
  • In my mind’s eye
  • In my book of memory
  • It smells to heaven
  • Kill with kindness
  • Killing frost
  • Knock knock! Who’s there?
  • Laid on with a trowel
  • Laughing stock
  • Lean and hungry look
  • Lie low
  • Live long day
  • Love is blind
  • Though this be madness, yet there is method in it
  • Make a virtue of necessity
  • Milk of human kindness
  • Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows
  • More honored in the breach than in the observance
  • More sinned against than sinning
  • Murder most foul
  • Neither rhyme nor reason
  • Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it
  • [Obvious] as a nose on a man’s face
  • Once more unto the breach
  • One fell swoop
  • One that loved not wisely but too well
  • Time is out of joint
  • Out of the jaws of death
  • What’s past is prologue
  • Pitched battle
  • Play fast and loose
  • Pomp and circumstance
  • [A poor] thing, but mine own
  • Primrose path
  • Salad days
  • Sea change
  • Seen better days
  • Send packing
  • Sick at heart
  • Snail paced
  • Something in the wind
  • Something wicked this way comes
  • A sorry sight
  • Spotless reputation
  • Such stuff as dreams are made on
  • The short and the long of it
  • Tedious as a twice-told tale
  • Set my teeth on edge
  • Tell truth and shame the devil
  • Thereby hangs a tale.
  • There’s the rub
  • To gild refined gold, to pain the lily (“to gild the lily”)
  • To thine own self be true
  • Too much of a good thing
  • Tower of strength
  • Trippingly on the tongue
  • Truth will out
  • Wear my heart upon my sleeve
  • What’s done is done
  • What fools these mortals be
  • What the dickens
  • Wild-goose chase
  • Working-day world
  • The world’s my oyster