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Build An Effective Vocabulary

Cliché-Cluttered Conversation


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		  Cliché-Cluttered Conversation   

 We all learned back in tenth grade English class that a cliché is "a trite, stereotyped expression that has lost originality and impact by long overuse," as in "strong as an ox." Most likely your teacher discouraged the use of clichés on aesthetic grounds, recommending instead that you use fresh and lively language. But how about excisting clichés on practical communication grounds? Such as the "lost impact" of your messages? That is the real downside of using the cliché.     

Years ago, humorist Frank Sullivan, writing for the New Yorker as "Mr. Arbuthnot, the cliché expert," spoofed the breezy language of his time (1935-1952) in light-hearted interviews. A recent update by English Professor Ben Yagoda gives the flavor of these conversations:     

Q: Mr. Arbuthnot, since your last testimony, have you continued to follow the world of clichés?     

A: I'm all over it, 24/7.     

Q: Would you mind answering a few questions to establish your expertise?     

A: Whassup with that? Sorry if I've got that deer-in-the- headlights look, but I'm shocked, shocked. Here's my deal: I'm a world-class talking head. I've made my bones and I've got all my bona fides. When you chatted me up with this, you didn't give me a heads up that I had to reinvent myself.     

Q: I apologize. I am merely following the charter of this committee.     

A: Whatever.     

Q: . . .You will certainly be a valuable witness . . .     

A: Sweet. And I'm sorry for going postal a minute ago. I promise I won't be high maintenance. With all the media here, I can see where this could be a win-win. Besides, I want to give something back.     

Q: Have you noticed any new clichés recently?     

A: Big time. Bottom line: Arguably, this is the cliché's 15 minutes.*     

You get the idea. Cliches started out as fresh and vigorous, then became fashionable, then faddish, then faded. They persist because they're easily dispensed from the tongue or pen without much thought. Some still in use (e.g., "dead as a doornail") are as old as Shakespeare, or older. The beauty of using fresh and striking language in our conversations is that it gets a listener's attention, perhaps triggering off images and feelings that engage the mind, stimulate creative processes, and are remembered. Doing so takes a bit more mental effort and the intention to have impact, and in our hurry-up world of breezy interactions, such effort may be in short supply.     

Our poets and novelists offer us the best repository of fresh language. And some columnists and a few commentators. They show us what language can really do to get us thinking more vigorously. For example, I remember with admiration the eloquence of the late radio and television commentator Eric Sevareid (1912-1992). His language was pure public poetry without a sniff of a cliché. When we are selective in choosing the ones we read and listen to we can find -- and create -- more refreshing conversational expressions.     

As the late movie producer Sam Goldwyn once said so memorably, "Let's have some new clichés." And as my friend, professional speaker and entrepreneur Tom Antion says, "No one ever lost credibility by being interesting."    


Loren Ekroth ©2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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