Standing on the Shoulders of Clichés

Published: June 18, 2005

THE season of clichés is upon us, with end-of-school speeches - perversely called "commencement" - ringing out their uplifting platitudes: "go forth," "trust your instincts," "make the world a better place." This is the time when new chapters are beginning, windows of opportunity are opening, and countless mass-produced metaphors are filling the halls of learning.

It's enough to make language mavens grimace: the more often we hear a phrase, the less forceful the impression it makes. So through over-familiarity, the currency of language is devalued.

Take this example: when in the 17th century Isaac Newton paid homage to his intellectual predecessors, he expressed his humility with an image that was still fresh and evocative. "If I have seen further than others," he wrote, "it was only by standing upon the shoulders of giants." Three centuries and many repetitions later, Hillary Clinton used the same metaphor in a Harvard Medical School commencement speech, when (twice in the same paragraph) she told the graduates they would "stand on the shoulders" of their illustrious forerunners. The once vivid image has faded through overexposure, and the words have become not much more than a flourish of meaningless rhetoric.

And if it seems improbable that images can really wear out beyond recognition, the arbiters of good taste might bring as evidence that ultimate literary sin, mixing metaphors. The president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, for example, couldn't possibly have had the picture of a locking instrument or of a pillar on a highway in her mind's eye when she assured her seniors last month that commencement was "a key milestone." in their lives. What better proof, then, of the erosive effect of clichés?

The critics certainly have a point that images are devalued through overuse, but are they also right that this devalues language as a whole and robs us of our powers of expression? Excuse the cliché, but there is another side to the coin. Were it not for all the clichés of the past, our vocabulary today would be very impoverished indeed, for cliché is a necessary stage between new imagery and everyday vocabulary.

Suppose you wanted to avoid the danger of muddled images like "key milestone," and so opted for something safer, say, the understated "important moment" or the slightly bolder "crucial instance." Would these alternatives be any less clichéd?

Only in the sense that their original imagery is so worn out by now that it's no longer recognizable. "Crucial," for instance, originally just meant cross-shaped. The current sense goes back to a phrase coined by Francis Bacon, who used "crucial" to describe an event that makes you choose between rival hypotheses. The image he had in mind was that of a cross-shaped signpost marking a parting of a road.

But through repetition, "crucial" became a cliché that was recycled so often that all traces of the original metaphor vanished from our linguistic consciousness, and it ended up as merely a different way of saying "important." Actually, even "important" itself was once an image in its own right, as it ultimately goes back to a word meaning "carry."

So the spread of clichés in fact contributes to that great democratic process in which inspired images coined by the gifted few are appropriated as the staple vocabulary of the common man. And we stand, as it were, on the shoulders of generations of past clicheurs, whose enterprise in reproducing hackneyed images has enriched our vocabulary with so many synonyms. As the German novelist Jean Paul once remarked, language is nothing but a "dictionary of faded metaphors," or in other words, our vocabulary is a treasure-hoard of worn clichés.

Those who would bar us from using our "keys" and "milestones" today are in effect depriving the next generations of their fair share of "crucials" and "importants." And isn't that rather mean? So go forth, class of 2005, trust your instincts, churn out clichés by the bucketload, and make the world a better place.

Guy Deutscher is the author, most recently, of "The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention."