Thursday, May 5, 2011

This is Not a Cliché

The derivation of the word cliché is based on a printer's term, and as a printer this fills me with glee (the mirthful emotion, not the t.v. show). Not only does this fact tickle me, but I feel a responsibility to examine it today in relation to words. (At some point in the future I'll tackle overused imagery.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. notes for cliché: French, past participle of clicher, to stereotype (imitative of the sound made when the matrix is dropped into molten metal to make a stereotype plate.) "an expression or idea that has lost its originality or force through overuse."

And if you are not familiar with a stereotype plate: Stereotype: 3. a metal printing plate cast from a matrix molded from a raised printing surface, such as type. 4. To give a fixed, unvarying form.

A rigid idea about something. I think we are familiar with stereotypes about people.

Interesting that cliché is a sound. Cliché as an onomatopoetic word is lovely. (Did you ever notice that if you replaced "on" with "t" you could have "tomatopoetic? Would that would mean poetry so bad you wanted to throw things at it, or a sublime pasta sauce?) The sounds of words can bring to mind some powerful imagery as well.

Several years ago, as I was reading either The Magician's Assistant or Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, I noticed familiar phrases in the midst of fresh and vibrant imagery. By surrounding the old with the new she was able to restore power to the older phrase. Here's a sample from page 3 of Bel Canto:
But this visit, with its glorious birthday replete with opera star, with several meetings planned and trips to possible factory sites tomorrow, was a full world closer than they had ever come before and the air in the room was sugared with promise.
In this particular sentence, "A full world closer" could be considered familiar, but the people in the story do hope to change their world, so it makes sense in context. Overused phrases connected to "world" might be "a world away," "a world apart," and "a world of difference." Additionally, Patchett doesn't use "sugar-coated," or "sugary sweet" which are overused."Sugared with promise" feels new because of the (I would say surprising) combination of "sugar" with "promise."

Vladimir Nabokov took a different approach in Transparent Things; he pointed out the cliché and made fun of it:
"To make a story quite short," replied Mr. R (who had an exasperating way of not only trotting out hackneyed formulas in his would-be colloquial thickly accented English, but also of getting them wrong)… (31).
Nabokov let the reader know that he knew it was a cliché and that he had used it intentionally. Of course, the cliché is "to make a long story short."

At the end of the day, if you can set a cliché into a sentence in a surprising way, more power to you. But seriously, after you place words on a page and serve up the sentences, see what happens when you go back and make substitutions; you might end up making a tastier story.

Challenge, 2007
photo by Sibila Savage

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