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At The End Of The Day, Cliches Can Be As Good As Gold


So I'm wondering, how often have you actually counted your chickens before they'd hatched, or maybe thrown up a single stone and then hit two birds, not to mention having one of those critters in your hand that was worth two of them in the bush. Cliches are very often denounced as the most over-used and contemptible phrases in the English language.

But let me just state to you my two cents here, the think outside the box. Sometimes cliches are not only useful, but they create a sense of community. That's what Hephzibah Anderson says, anyway, in a recent piece in Prospect magazine. So we want to hear about one cliche that you like. What cliche do you use? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can find us on Twitter, @totn.

Hephzibah Anderson joins us now from our bureau in London. She's a freelance writer and associate editor of Prospect magazine. Her piece, "In Praise of the Cliche," appeared in that magazine in November. Hephzibah, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.


HEADLEE: So are there good cliches then or - and bad cliches?

ANDERSON: I think there were definitely two kinds of cliches. There's the cliche that really is everything that - what we're taught the cliche should be - it's redundant, it's repetitive, it's banal, it's worn out. It certainly means absolutely nothing until - and it really serves as a, sort of, punctuation. It's more of a rhythmic thing in a sentence. It doesn't really convey any meaning. Among my real bug (unintelligible) where it concerns is, at the end of the day, or all things being equal. Those are things you can strip from any sentence, and the sentence will be absolutely none the worse.

So - but the really good cliches are - in my opinion, are the ones that are packed with color and wonderful images, even though we often hear them so often, so frequently that we don't pause to consider them. Things like the elephant in the room and throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And so that sort of cliche that turns out, often, to have a really interesting and rich history or, you know, the cliche that tends to come from Shakespeare, that sort of cliche.

HEADLEE: Or from the Bible, sources like that. We have Mary, here, in Springfield, Illinois. And you have a particular cliche that you like.

MARY: I do. I learned it from my grandmother, and it was that which does not kill you, makes you stronger. And it's a mental cliche that I use as a survival tool for a lot of my days because I have a child with special needs, and I'm a single parent, and I also teach special education to high-risk students. And sometimes, they're a little volatile. So, you know, that's what made me get through the day to think, I'm going to get through this. And that cliche helps remind me that I'm going to get through it.

HEADLEE: All right. Thank you. That's Mary, calling from Springfield, Illinois. So maybe that's the difference, Hephzibah, that you're talking about here, between the good or bad cliche.

ANDERSON: Yeah. That's a really good example, because not only does it have personal history for the caller, but also, it's such an old saying, and it packs generations of human struggle and striving into it. And the very fact that it has been repeated down the generations gives you strength because, you know, it makes you think, well, you know, I'm not in this alone, people have done this before. Things like, back to the drawing board, that's another one that always cheers me up.

HEADLEE: I can't stand the thing, it's not rocket science, because that feels so...


HEADLEE: ...so condescending to me.

ANDERSON: Yeah, yeah.

HEADLEE: And yet, the reason that people don't like cliches is because they feel they're lazy. What's your response to that?

ANDERSON: They do. And I think that, you know, certainly, they can be lazy. But on the other hand, you know, I actually had this conversation with a writer friend. And we'd been talking, and because I was writing this piece, I was super alert to cliches and I was just counting them off as they tumble from our lips. And it was quite a high tally, let me tell you.

But, you know, they're very - we felt - I said, don't you think the very fact that, you know, as writers, we're worrying about cliches makes us kind of a cliche? And I think you can sometimes try too hard to avoid them. You know, it's - obviously, a challenge as writers or as communicators or as speakers is to make things fresh and vivid and zesty as we can. But on the other hand, you can try too hard. There's a reason a cliche has become a cliche. Language is constantly renewing itself. If these truths can stick with us, they're there for a reason. And, you know, I think sometimes the shock of the true can be more significant than the shock of the new. We try too hard sometimes.

HEADLEE: Well, Rebecca is calling from Oklahoma. And she has a particular cliche that, I guess, you use all the time, Rebecca. Is that right?

REBECCA: I don't use it all the time, but I use it as a measuring stick: Haste makes waste. I have eight children and...

HEADLEE: Eight children. God bless you, Rebecca.

REBECCA: Yes. Oh, he has. I was told I couldn't have any. But, you know, in their homework assignments like math, they have to line up their numbers and make sure they didn't miss a placeholder or something like that. And then some of my children were like, uh, I don't want to do this. I don't want to be organized like this. Well, they're assignment, they didn't really learn anything and they got a bad grade.

HEADLEE: So you use this in teaching your eight children - and thank you very much for calling. That's Rebecca, calling from Oklahoma. And maybe there's a different standard, Hephzibah, between a writer who needs to be original and someone just using cliches in their everyday language.

ANDERSON: There's definitely a different standard between written and spoken English. Even if you're writing, if you're writing dialogue, there's absolutely a place for the - even those very worn-out, frayed, tacit, old cliches, because they lend a colloquial authenticity, even if they don't really say anything. But, you know, that's another great example of a cliche that looks somehow fondly. It's admonishing, but it also - the very fact that we've been saying it for generations and generations looks a little more fondly on our human weaknesses.

One of my own favorite and very overused - I regret to say - cliches is better late than never. And I was so charmed to learn that this dates back to the ancient Greeks. And it was a very famous rhetorician who came up with that one, the idea of all these Greek philosophers running around in their togas, just a little late.


HEADLEE: And other Greek philosophers saying quit using that cliche. All right. We have with us Chris from Amherst, Massachusetts here, and we're asking what you're favorite cliche is. Chris, what's yours?

CHRIS: Yeah. My favorite cliche is - the wisest thing I've ever heard anyone say is judge things by their effect. A quick example: As it happens, I'm disabled. And in order to keep muscle mass on my body, I have to exercise. Now, it really hurts. But the overall effect of that exercise, it's not just bone on bed. I get some muscle mass. And I find that that particular phrase, judge things by their effect, it really separates one's intentions versus what's going to happen in the long run.

HEADLEE: But if you use that over and over, Chris, doesn't it eventually lose its power?

CHRIS: No, it gains power, actually. It becomes more like a diamond. The older I get and the more that I experience in life, the more I see that that particular phrase, how important it is. The difference between, you know, a wish, you know, you wish something to happen. Well, what's going to be the effect of that particular wish? You need to have, like, a 10 to 100-year vision to see what's really going to happen in the long run.

HEADLEE: That's Chris, calling from Amherst, Massachusetts. Thank you so much, Chris. So - we're speaking with Hephzibah Anderson. She's a freelance writer, but she wrote "In Praise of the Cliche" for the Prospect magazine, of which she's associate editor. So, Hephzibah, you were responding when you wrote this to a criticism of the cliche, right?

ANDERSON: I was. I was responding to a book called "Cliches: Avoid Them Like the Plague" by a man called Nigel Fountain, who has compiled an A to Z of things to avoid. And I was rather thinking about - because he takes a very literal - his definition of the cliche is very literal. So he includes a lot of things in there that I wouldn't have thought necessarily were cliches. They're used often so they're very much truisms. They're aphorisms. And what he does is he takes the word cliche back to its origins, in the printing presses of 19th century France, where a cliche was literally a text block, a block of words that we used so frequently, that the typesetters just clumped them together so they could be reached for when, you know, yet another journalist or writer just decided to say, you know, at the end of the day, or whatever it was.

And it - but, you know, that sort of is interesting, because although that's the origin of the word, this very fixed combination of words, in application, the cliche is almost sort of promiscuous, which is why it stuck with us. It can be applied to anybody's life. You know, I think we've all had cause to go back to the drawing board or cut to the chase. And, you know, I think the previous caller's point about, you know, he feels that the more he uses it, he's sort of polishing it. That's a really nice point, because we take these very general, universal truths, and then by using them...

HEADLEE: (unintelligible)


HEADLEE: It's kind of the same concept, a little bit, of a picture's worth a thousand words, right?

ANDERSON: Yes. Exactly. Exactly.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with Hephzibah Anderson. She's a freelance writer and wrote the article "In Praise of the Cliche." Let's take a look at some emails we've gotten with the cliches you all out there use most. Joel in Medford, Massachusetts, says, I, as a high school teacher, use the phrase: You can't make chicken poop out of chicken soup.

Rachel in Florence, Oregon, says her favorite is: No good deed goes unpunished. And Caleb in Pittsburg has this comment, which emphasizes the power of moms. He says: One cliche that stands out to this day in my life is something my mother used to use. As a child, when my mother caught me lying for personal gain, she'd say: Don't pull the wool over my eyes. And to this day, hearing that still gives poor Caleb a feeling of guilt - as, I assume, even if it's not directed at him. We want to hear what kind of cliches that you like to use. Our number is 800-989-8255. And let's go to Sean here in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sean, what's the cliche you like to use?

SEAN: Well, I probably looked - I read it in a Robert Pinsky poem. It's all about cliches. I can't remember the title now. When you kiss the cat, you kiss the fleas. It's sort of on par with play with fire, you get burned. But it sounds fresher, I think, because it's sort of archaic. And a lot of people - a lot of my friends, anyway - have never heard of it. And they sort of stop and think to themselves: Kissing a cat doesn't seem like such a bad thing. But, you know, it can be. So...

ANDERSON: Yeah, absolutely. So, Sean, thank you very much.

HEADLEE: I like that one.

ANDERSON: Yeah, that's a good one, right?


ANDERSON: But one of the reasons I liked it is because I haven't heard it.

Yeah. Yeah. So maybe we should be either dusting off older ones, or reinventing new ways of conveying these essential truths. Castles in Spain was one that was included in this book that I'd never heard, that I rather liked. And it's sort of akin to Pie in the Sky, which is another of my favorites.

HEADLEE: All right. Well, we're speaking with Hephzibah Anderson, a freelance writer, about cliches. But let me take care of our business. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Back to Hephzibah Anderson, and let's go to another caller here. We've got Paulie(ph) in North Lake Tahoe, California, and what is the cliche that you use, Paulie?

PAULIE: Well, one that it is (technical difficulties) introduced to me several years ago, her name is Jane. She said, Paulie, whenever you're out of control, you have no control over the situation. Just look at it. It is what it is. And I can't tell you the number of times I've used that myself over trends, when there's a circumstance or a person whose behavior we can't control. It gives comfort to know that it just is what it is.

HEADLEE: And can't be changed. That's Paulie. Thank you so much, calling from North Lake Tahoe, California. So, Hephzibah, maybe there's regional differences to whether cliches are meaningful or not.

ANDERSON: Hmm. I think that's very true. I was trying to think of some that do not translate. And I'm not sure that Bob's your uncle is one that crosses the Atlantic very often from England.

HEADLEE: No. That does not.

ANDERSON: But that's a really, you know, it's a really interesting example of, you know, a cliche that is - that it sort of has its own kind of - it feels slightly rooted back into the '50s or something here. But actually, it turns out to be the 1800s and a corrupt prime minister, who's first name was Robert, and he was famed for - notorious for his cronyism and nepotism. So...

HEADLEE: Oh, ha. Bob's your uncle.


HEADLEE: And then you can get a job. Let's get into a couple for emails here with people writing in with their cliches. Rachel says: It took me way too long to understand a stitch in time saves nine, but I love it, and should abide by it more.

Abby says: Do your best, and forget the rest.

And Rick in Mooresville, North Carolina, says: Stop that crying, or I'll give you something to cry about. So, Rick, I think we need to speak later after the show. But let's take a listen here to Crystal(ph), calling from San Francisco, California. Crystal, what's your cliche?

CRYSTAL: Hi. Mine is if you can't beat them, join them. And recently, I love that, because my boyfriend likes to write graffiti and I hated it. And I joined him now and I write my own name, and now we have an experience that I love to do with him.

HEADLEE: And does he use that, as well?

CRYSTAL: He likes it now. He'll write, like, a little note, because it's a little reference to me on his paintings or whatever he puts up on, you know, the city. And so we bond over that.

HEADLEE: Oh, that's interesting. Thanks. That's Crystal, in San Francisco, California. So sometimes, a cliche that's used by millions of people, Hephzibah, can have personal meaning.

ANDERSON: Yeah. It assumes - you know, it's like when you - only when you have a terrible breakup do you realize all the sort of cheesy songs to, you know, romance, you know, terrible torch songs, that they - it can give them intense personal truth. And I think that life does that where cliches are concerned, as well. But, you know, again, that's a classic example of a cliche that has real calm wisdom to it, as well. You know, like, along the lines of it is what it is. It tells you, just, you know what? Sometimes you can't do something about it. It's human nature. Just let it be. Roll with it, you know, along the line.


ANDERSON: Again, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. It's those sort of things, you know, just sort of just go with it. Don't, you know, don't stress the small stuff.

HEADLEE: That's right. All right. Here we've got Jim in Jacksonville, Florida. And, Jim, you've got a cliche for us, as well.

JIM: Yes. I've been waiting, and I know that I'm here at the near end of the program. But one that I often tell myself since I work in sales is that it's not over until it's over. I love the simple logic of that because one has to get something done, especially when one has sales goals, or really any kind of goals in life. If you're going through too much time and you're not getting enough accomplishment, it's - there's - we have to overcome the sense of futility, this sneaking desire to maybe just quit and stop. And it's important - I keep myself going by telling myself: It's not over until it's over. I have till the last minute. I have till the last second to either accomplish my goal or come very close to it, or to just get more than what I have right now.


JIM: One of the things that makes me madder than anything else is when I see the football players run off the field with 30 seconds on the clock because of (unintelligible) field goal.

HEADLEE: And then they'll say - OK.

ANDERSON: At the end of the day (unintelligible).

HEADLEE: We're getting into Jim's personal frustrations. Thank so much to Jim in Jacksonville, Florida. Hephzibah, at the end of the day, you got to finish the game.

ANDERSON: You've got to finish the game. And that was - that's a really good example of...

HEADLEE: And you have to be careful when you use cliches.

ANDERSON: You know, that totally passed the cliche test, because it took him many, many, many more words to explain what he was saying when he says...

HEADLEE: That's right. OK. So maybe that's the measure. That's Hephzibah Anderson, author of "Chastened," associate editor of Prospect magazine. She joined us from our bureau in London. You can find a link to her piece, "In Praise of the Cliche," at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow talks with "America's Test Kitchen" chef Jack Bishop about the science of good cooking, and then Neal Conan is back on Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.