Woolfer Words: “Cliche”
When you become a woman of A Certain Age, as it is so delicately put, you find your priorities shift and your capacity for dealing with inanity of all types shrinks. Ah, people say, it is what it is.
And you grit your teeth and try not to say, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Someone posted a WWVWD thread recently about clichés—those trite phrases we love to hate (and please excuse the two clichés in that sentence). One comment kept popping up again and again: “what does that even mean?”
The original cliché was a physical item used in the printing press. For centuries, printers would prepare a page for the press by hand-setting individual metal letters (called “cast type”) into a wooden frame and locking them into place. These frames full of type were inked and pressed onto the printing paper.
Cast type was made of lead—it’s a soft metal that’s easy to work with—and lead will eventually flatten out as you use it. And printers only had so much type on hand: it was expensive to make and took up a lot of storage space. So printers devised a way to make plaster casts of these typeset frames, which they could then use to make entire printing plates, thus saving the original type from being stamped into literal obscurity, and freeing up type for other projects. These plates had two names: “stereotypes,” a combo of the Greek word that means “solid” and the English word “type,” and “clichés,” named for the sound made when a printer strikes a printing block into molten metal to make a plate.
“Cliché” and “stereotype” took different paths after they left the print shop. “Stereotype” came to refer to a set image or impression of a person or group of people, and “cliché” came to refer to a set phrase. Neither word is glowingly positive, though “cliché” comes off a little bit better in comparison.
Why do clichés irritate us so much? It’s true that they feel insubstantial, like the lexical equivalent of cotton candy: impressive looking, but it’s mostly air and leaves you with a weird toothache at the end of it. But the original thread poster hints at our real frustrations with clichés. She writes,
“I find that so-called comforting clichés actually make me feel worse and more lonely, though I know people ‘mean well’ and not everyone is able to express themselves without resorting to clichés.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a conversation in possession of an awkward silence must be want for blather. Most of us grew up in cultures or spaces where any discussion of something deemed unpleasant—pain, loss, grief, anger—needed to be acknowledged, but also gotten over as quickly as possible. It’s almost superstitious: let’s not dwell on death/divorce/loneliness/pain lest it decide to take up residence here, too. And so the clichés spill forth:
“It is what it is,”
“The universe has a plan,”
“The cosmos won’t give you anything you can’t handle,”
(as drag queen Trixie Mattel so beautifully parodies).
What we want to say—“that’s horrible,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I’m so, so sorry”—seems so much more inadequate than even the tritest of clichés.
My mother used to say that one of the greatest gifts of being a woman of A Certain Age was that no one paid attention to you, so you could say what was on your mind and people would just chalk it up to you being an older eccentric lady. And though I’m still on the front end of A Certain Age, I find that outlook freeing. It enables me to stop worrying about how it looks to sit in an awkward silence, to trust that “I’m so, so sorry” are words enough in a place where no words are going to be sufficient.
The point of the original, physical cliché was to make the production of books quicker, and therefore, it was a means to increasing communication. Sure, all clichés have an originating point where they actually communicated something. “For all intents and purposes” was originally a legal phrase; “be well” was a benediction, a wish for health and happiness as you parted ways. And there are times when clichés really do communicate something important to us. “Be gentle with yourself” struck me as amazing life advice when I first heard it in my 20s, but after a few decades of being told to be gentle with myself, it doesn’t have the same kick. But overuse has blurred each cliché, like the original lead type, into obscurity. It is what it is. Whatever the hell that means.
Kory Stamper is the author of the best-selling nonfiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles her two-decade career as a dictionary writer for Merriam-Webster. Her writing on words and language has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and on New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is currently a full-time writer, has two adult daughters, and will not cut coffee or alcohol out of her diet though her gyno says it would help with the night sweats.