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The Curse of Cliches

When did the expression "blood-curdling scream" make its way into our everyday lexicon?  Why do we use expressions like "pass with flying colors" or "flash in the pan"?  Why do we fall back on the same trite phrases--"bated breath", "tongue lolling", "hale and hearty"?  Personally, I don't think I've ever bated my breath, but perhaps I'm wrong.  My dog's tongue is more likely to flap than to loll, and I don't even know what "hale" means unless I look it up.

Often the source of such expressions is so old we can't find it.  Other times a phrase or expression sticks in people's minds because it's so apt.  Frequently cliches are adapted from great writers, in particular Shakespeare.  The venerable book on publishing, Words Into Type, has an extensive list of trite expressions, and there are a number of websites devoted to the topic.  I like clichesite.com, for example.   It's useful, if you're going to use a cliche, to understand the etymology behind it.

A better choice, I think, is to avoid the cliche when you can.  It may drive you to your thesaurus, but there's no harm in that!  It's a great creative exercise to come up with fresh ways of saying the same thing, and often a neat metaphor or simile may result.  In dialogue, if the cliche fits the character's way of speaking, it doesn't matter.  We do speak in cliches, all the time.  But in narration, I would be perfectly happy never again to read that someone's spine tingled, or their tears spilled, or they spun on their heel (which seems a singularly awkward movement.)  Samuel Goldwyn is supposed to have said, "Let's have some new cliches."  I feel certain we can produce a few!

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