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Thursday, 31 May 2012
The Case for Cliché

by G. Murphy Donovan (June 2012)

“Well over 80 percent of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought.”  -  H. L. Mencken

Beginning an essay or chapter with an adage or aphorism is an antique convention based on several considerations, not the least of which are; humility, prudence, and caution.  more>>>

Posted on 05/31/2012 2:16 PM by NER
7 Jan 2013
Send an emailThomas Wells

 Write on !

6 Jun 2012
Send an emailg. Murphy Donovan


Inspiration, yes; corrective, never! I am honored to appear with all of NER's contributors. I just noticed the thread on aphorisms/ witticisms and thought that I would get an oar in with a small piece composed of invented cliches.

And I realize that there are distinctions between cliches and that host of  other witticisms, but I didn't want to get too far into the mechanical weeds. And as to Shakespeare and the dons, I do believe WS was writing for, among others, the aficionados of burlesque, sight gags - the semi-literate cheap seats. At the same time, I'm convinced that there is more truth, or instruction,  in an ounce of his art then there will ever be in a pound of science. But that's my opinion, not scholarship.

And as to "what is a cliche;" I believe frequency of use is a consideration, which makes almost any clever adage a candidate. Overuse has a corrosive quality. But then again, that's my opinion, not science.

I'm happy to be wrong or corrected on any of these things. Thank you both for the kind comments.

2 Jun 2012
David Gontar

Dear Mr. Donovan:   I too enjoyed your discussion.   But I fear I didn't quite understand it.   Much space was devoted to prefatory aphorisms and adages.  It comes as a surprise to learn that these would be regarded by anyone as cliches.  In fact, particularly with respect to aphorisms, it's hard to see how they could ever be viewed as anything other than the opposite of cliche.  We all know that certain dull phrases appear too often (the babbling brook you mention) and surely such locutions are to be avoided whenever possible.   Hence in what sense a defense of cliche has been mounted is insufficiently apparent for my own obtuse purposes.   As for Shakespeare, it's amusing to see that old Droeshout cartoon in NER again so soon after my own essay about it, but it's a bit hard to fathom how reference to Shakespeare might support the "case for" chiche.  Your own essay contains a couple of Shakespearean phrases, appropriately adapted.  As the author not merely of poetry and drama but of our very language, recurrence to his expressions is inevitable.  But how this poet can be cited in the context of your presentation escapes me.  He was no friend of cliche, that's for sure.   One more thing.  Some of us would be interested to learn how you came by the conviction that Shakespeare was not writing to edify the dons of Oxford.   I cheerfully admit there may be many dons at Oxford who believe Shakespeare was not writing for their enlightenment, but if so, all this shows is that the poet partially failed to accomplish his purpose with respect to them.

Thanks very much.     

1 Jun 2012
Mack Hall

In my own personal opinion, and in conclusion, at the end of the day, the bottom line is, this paper will prove that, when all is said and done, when the fat man sings, that Mother Nature, in the awesome form of mighty Hurrican Rita thundering and slamming ashore in a fateful pre-dawn, wreaked havoc on our homeland, snapping trees like matchsticks and leaving a swath of destruction in her wake that looked like a war zone and changed our lives forever, requiring us to to seek closure and healing from grief counselors.

31 May 2012
David Wemyss

I liked this article, which might seem surprising since it must have been intended - at least in part - to be a corrective to some of my own writing.

It's difficult to know where to begin, so I'll just say briefly that it was one of my fictional characters (in "A Splinter of Ice") who sounded as if he approved of Graham Greene's notion that it was the obligation of a writer not to say that a brook babbled. And he said this in the course of a fictional dialogue, in which a group of rather precocious students were talking about their different understandings of what one of them called "conversational miasma". 

Now I have to say that I don't think this strain of experiential difficulty can be put down to just pathology or whisky (!)  -  but I don't think having Wittgenstein or Kafka on your bedside table as a "main man" is going to do the trick either. 

I think you need much more lightness of touch than any of these people could manage  - even though, at their best, they understood all too well that they were bound to fail  - and so I've always thought of cliche as a bad thing if it makes conversation heavier rather than lighter. If cliche helps conversation along as part of a kind of stylishness, then, yes, it's good - but you don't notice it when it's like that.

But, looking at the bit in my new piece about people "sharpening cliches into shibboleths", it does occur to me that I've been using "cliche" in line with a fairly common general usage that comes close to conflating it with "shibboleth", so I'll bear that in mind in future (i.e. think twice about doing it!).

All the best,