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

Share
Related Topics

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.

a.mcsmith@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own