Andy McSmith: I've no axe to grind with clichés

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The Independent Online

Readers of The Independent have been having fun filling our letters column with clichés. You could call it a game of two halves. My colleague John Rentoul kicked off with an essay on the clichés beloved of politicians. Then readers competed to see who could compress the maximum number of them into the minimum space.

At the end of the day, I don't want to go too far down that road. I'm clichéd out. From here on I will strive to use these fig leaves that cover empty minds only when directly quoting others, because there is a serious point that concerns me about the distinction between a cliché and a useful stock phrase.

Cliches can be very annoying. They block intelligent thought. I recall being infuriated early one morning as I heard a guest on the Today programme begin an answer by saying in a tone resonant with bombastic self-regard: "We are where we are!" I wished the interviewer would challenge him to name anyone who had ever said that we are where we're not.

On another plane, there was "Jedi Jim" Eastwood on The Apprentice who, when challenged to describe himself without using a cliché, came up with the immortal response: "I'm what it says on the tin."

When salesmen like Jim bombard you with clichés, their intent is to separate you from your money; while at the powerful and pompous end of the human spectrum, clichés are simply verbal bullying. The sub-text is: "I'm important, too important to need to trouble myself to form an original thought when I'm speaking to you, but you will listen anyway."

By contrast, I was in court the day before yesterday hearing two witnesses in a "right to die" case defending a proposal to switch off the life support system of someone they had loved who had profound brain damage.

Neither person can be identified for legal reasons, but I think the law would permit me to say they are not metropolitan sophisticates. They are ordinary people from up north who, I surmise, will have gone directly from state school into modestly paid work. A family tragedy required them to be in central London giving evidence for hours on end in front of trained barristers in the forbidding setting of a high court.

Were some clever-clever cliché hunter to go through the transcript of their evidence he would come across several stock phrases used many times before. The sister of the woman whose life was under discussion used the expression "in my heart of hearts" more than once. The man who had loved the near-brain dead woman since they first met in 1982, came out with that old standby: "She was my rock." That phrase, so banal in so many circumstances, was extremely powerful in the mouth of a man so lacerated by grief that he could barely speak at all.

That much overused "in my heart of hearts" also served a purpose when used by a woman with no relevant professional qualifications to address a court that will hear days of expert evidence about the legal and medical implications of closing down a "minimally conscious" patient's life support system. Not being in a position to argue about the technicalities, she could only express what she believed to be the humane course, "in her heart of hearts".

Stock phrases, or clichés, are tools that can serve a number of uses. They can be trundled out by people who are too lazy to think, or deployed by people with an overdeveloped sense of their importance to dominate a conversation and close down thought. But when the comparatively powerless are addressing the powerful, they are an accessible aid to communication. Before we issue a blanket condemnation of stock phrases, we should look at who is using them and to what end. Cliches can empower.