Definition of Cliché

A cliché is a saying, idea, or element of artistic work that is overused in a culture to the point of losing its original, more significant, meaning. Clichés often are annoying to a listener or reader in that they display a lack of originality on the part of the speaker or writer. Some clichés are also examples of idiom that are simply far too commonly used in the language.

The word cliché comes from French, and it is an onomatopoeic word for the sound of using a metal printing plate. Interestingly, this printing plate was also known as a stereotype. Thus, the definition of cliché comes from the idea that the printing plates printed the same words repeatedly.

Common Examples of Cliché

There are thousands of examples of cliché in English. Other languages have their own clichés. Micro-cultures can have their own clichéd words, such as on college campuses where students overuse the same intelligent-sounding words such as “heuristic” or “problematize.” The words may be appropriate in some cases, but also may be used in a way that, paradoxically, hints at the students’ lack of original thinking. Here are some common examples of cliché in English:

  • Let’s touch base.
  • The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
  • Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
  • I’m like a kid in a candy store.
  • I lost track of time.
  • Roses are red, violets are blue…
  • Time heals all wounds.
  • We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.
  • Play your cards right.
  • Read between the lines.
  • Beauty is only skin deep.

Significance of Cliché in Literature

There are two main ways in which clichés are significant in literature in positive ways. The first is that many of our common, overused phrases actually come from works of literature. This is especially the case with phrases that William Shakespeare created, which are now repeated ad nauseum. We will see other clichés that have come from more contemporary authors in Examples 2 and 3.

The other way that an author may use a cliché example on purpose is in dialogue to show a character’s triteness, or perhaps even for humorous effect. If an author writes a cliché knowingly, at times this may be a wink at the audience that the author is using tired conventions and perhaps playing off of them. This could be an effective usage of cliché in parody, for example.

In general, though, authors try to avoid using clichés. Clichés are also not limited to expressions. There can be clichéd characters, plot lines, and settings. For example, many people scoffed at the popular trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James because the personalities of the characters are so clichéd. Indeed, James even based the series off the similarly popular Twilight books, and thus the characters are necessarily “overused.” The effect of using clichés generally closes the mind of the reader down in that it doesn’t present images in a new way or challenge the reader to imagine possibilities that he or she has never imagined before.

Examples of Cliché in Literature

Example #1

HAMLET: Slanders, sir. For the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams—all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.
POLONIUS: (aside) Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

This is one of the many examples of cliché that has come into use from William Shakespeare. As Hamlet becomes more and more insane and speaks in even stranger ways, he encounters the character Polonius. Hearing Hamlet’s strange discourse on aging, Polonius makes the remark, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.” Polonius says this as an aside so that Hamlet cannot hear him. In modern-day usage, this expression has now turned into the cliché “There’s method in his madness.” The list of clichés that have come from Shakespeare also includes sayings such as, “The game is up,” “Send him packing,” “Mum’s the word,” and, “Too much of a good thing.”

Example #2

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he would have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 has a theme at its core that has become a cliché in modern culture. This satirical book focuses on a group of soldiers in World War II who are waiting on an island off of Italy for missions to fly. Heller created the phrase “Catch-22” to describe a situation that is an unsolvable logical puzzle in which one answer precludes the other, opposite solution. This kind of logical puzzle is also known as a double bind, but in modern culture English-speakers generally use Heller’s made-up term Catch-22 instead.

Example #3

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”

(1984 by George Orwell)

In his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell created many ideas that are still popular now, and even seem to have foretold what reality would become. One of these popular ideas is the concept of “doublethink,” in which people have to believe two contradictory ideas at the same time. This was important for people at all levels of this dystopian world, from politicians to average citizens. Many people in the real world have since adopted this phrase to talk about the way real politicians and media types have gone on record stating completely contradictory beliefs without any seeming inner struggle.

Test Your Knowledge of Cliché

1. Which of the following statements is the best cliché definition?
A. An onomatopoeic figure of speech.
B. A statement that is a parody of earlier statements.
C. An expression or idea that is overused.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Consider the following excerpt from George Orwell’s 1984:

Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black mustachioed face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC.

Which of the following phrases from this excerpt is an example of cliché?
A. Eddies of wind
B. Big Brother is watching you

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following lines from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 is a cliché example?

And I am glad of it with all my heart:
I had rather be a kitten and cry mew
Than one of these same metre ballad-mongers;
I had rather hear a brazen canstick turn’d,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree;
And that would set my teeth nothing on edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry:
‘Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.

A. Set my teeth on edge.
B. Mincing poetry.
C. The forced gait of a shuffling nag.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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