The value of clichés


I went to see an extraordinary new play recently – London Road at the National Theatre. It is a verbatim record of interviews with neighbours in London Road, Ipswich, in the aftermath of the murders of prostitutes by serial killer Steve Wright – performed by actors and set to music. The words themselves are unremarkable in the extreme, consisting of clichés and platitudes – often repeated several times – of the kind uttered unthinkingly by people who don’t quite know what to say but feel compelled to say something. It is the context and the performance as well as the verisimilitude that make the play so mesmerising.

It made me think again about clichés and language. We should acknowledge, certainly, that clichés and platitudes and jargon are comforting. They reinforce human solidarity. They show empathy.

What they don’t do is enlighten, motivate, or persuade the reader or listener to act in a certain way – which is what Clarity and its clients are usually trying to achieve. Nonetheless, we should never underestimate the power of ordinariness, so brilliantly highlighted in London Road by the writer Alecky Blythe and her musical collaborator Alan Cork.

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5 Responses to The value of clichés

  1. Susannah May 27, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Thought-provoking, Rupert. Thanks for reminding us that clichés have their place, and an important one.

  2. Annette July 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    It would also be interesting to compare with the cliches Americans might say in a similar situation. Americans seem so much more eloquent but do they really say more, or just spend longer saying it?

  3. Will July 26, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Annette. I think you’re right that America is the home of the cliché (as well as the land of the free and home of the brave). On a related note, the BBC has been covering the differences between American and British English so I’ve talked about a few Americanisms that annoy me here:

  4. Zelie August 22, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    Rupert’s blog particularly resonates having watched a rather compelling documentary last night. It was a commemorative film made in 2004, to honour the lives of various soldiers who were killed in Iraq in 2003, and the purpose was to film their surviving families reading aloud the last letters they received from their son or daughter / husband or wife.

    What made the letters so compelling was not only how quickly I went from judgmental cliche-hater to a sobbing emotional wreck, but how unflinchingly raw the messages were despite being delivered via rather unoriginal language. Of course, some were more affecting than others, and it was undeniably how they were read aloud which could send a cliche souring from clumsy depths into realms of transcendental poetry. But either way, i was rather in awe of the power of phrases I personally would try to avoid using. I found myself craving them – the more cliched the better.

    Powerful stuff, ironically.

  5. Zelie August 22, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Correction: *soaring, not souring !

    Of course, some were more affecting than others, and it was undeniably how they were read aloud which could send a cliche soaring from clumsy depths into realms of transcendental poetry.

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