Thursday 6 May 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Clichés)

There are many pitfalls of which writers/journalists/columnists/bloggers have to be aware but one hazard stands out the most: the cliché. Mental blocs, though repudiated, provide respite – at least that’s my interpretation -, especially in stressful times. One’s attention is diverted to meatier issues. Sources of inspiration can dry up, but one must always keep a positive mind that somewhere, just around the corner lurks the next topic about which to write. Possibly inside a folder held by Erato across her chest. These two dangers, however, pale in comparison to that moment when you have drafted up what at first looked like a well-crafted chapter/poem/article/post, only to find out post-revision that you cluttered it with endless clichés. L’horreur, l’horreur!

And yet, who can claim to have escaped such fate? Who can aver to having had the capacity for thinking outside the box and saved the day at the last minute?

Not many raised hands, I see. And that’s because we need clichés. In fact, sometimes we depend on them.

In my case as a language undergraduate student I noticed the following mental process when learning English: translation/interpretation (especially at the beginning), recognition, gradual understanding without the help of your bilingual dictionary (this is almost like a toddler letting go of the arm of the chair) and finally thinking. And that last element means thinking in the language you are learning. It’s at that moment when clichés make their (un)desired appearance.

Although you will eventually become fully fluent in the language you choose to learn, deep inside you know that you will never, ever be a native speaker. There will always be elusive idioms and linguistic term you will not get. That’s no reason to despair, though, because platitudes become your support device, your linguistic walking stick. And like a trekking aid, you don’t need them all the time, but you like to know that they’re still there. Just in case. The situation gets complicated when you want to break away from those ‘helpful’ clichés because you believe yourself to be self-sufficient in your new language, yet you find that it’s nigh impossible.

To demonstrate how clichés can be useful I’ll tell you an anecdote. When I was in my fourth year at university I had to hand in a paper for my English literature class. At the time I was hooked on writers like Dean R Koontz, Thomas Harris and Scott Turow. When the day to present my assignment arrived and I had zilch to show (a situation that occurred frequently in my student days) I grabbed a handful of novels I had on my shelf at home by the aforementioned authors and began to write down my thoughts on the book we had discussed in class, using some of the newspapers quotes on the back of the novels in front of me (you call it cheating, I call it being creative). The majority were clichés (‘a rollercoaster of a book!’, ‘another thumbs-up novel by [insert author’s name here]) but that mattered not one jot to me. I re-arranged them in such a way that my paper looked like it was an Op-Ed in the New York Times. By the way, I am not implying that the Times is cliché-ridden, I am just stating that my solution was a bit of blue-sky thinking. Or blue-skying.

But away from the world of assignments, dissertations and essays that make up a student’s life, and on Planet Literature now, well, here clichés are not a welcome sight for me. The minute I smell that the author is pandering to commonality, and even worse, that his or her attempt is below par, I give the book the old heave-ho. Luckily that hasn’t happened for a few years. The last such piece I encountered had a hackneyed plot involving terrorists and third world poverty. The only reason I soldiered on till the end was that I don’t like closing books halfway through. But, my God, was I tempted!

And yet, I do also feel sympathy towards authors. And also towards journalists, columnists and fellow bloggers. Because in our desire to escape from the trite expressions that might pervert our craft, we fail to see what lies in front of us: an open trap at the bottom of which treacherous spikes glisten with the poison of stereotypes and inauthenticity licking their sharp ends. But far from feeling dispirited, we would do better to re-think our approach to clichés. Sometimes, as I mentioned at the beginning they are necessary. Haven’t you ever found yourself reading a book (fiction, poetry, scientific journal, whatever) and longed for a familiar phrase? That’s nothing to do with the author’s quality; it’s to do with the human need for what’s recognisable. In this context the cliché is a metaphor for the acquaintance we come across at a dinner party where we don’t know anyone else. And although we discard them the minute we become the soul of the party (cruel, I know, but the show must go on) that person is there to act as a sign of convention.

Let’s get real, my cyber-pals, too many clichés can asphyxiate a good narrative. But sprinkle a few of them around your text and your word soup will taste better. After all there’s only so much pushing the envelope one can do.

Image taken from The Boston Globe

© 2010

 Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 9th May at 10am(GMT)


  1. You are always so witty and I learn so much from you. Thank you.

  2. Intelligent, reasoned and very interesting post. You provoked my thoughts!
    And oh yes, there are times when reading that one longs for a cliche to stop the tirade of outlandish images and metaphors, however clever.
    Incidentally, I am in awe that you write this blog in your second language (that is a presumption - it may be your third or fourth...).

  3. You hit the nail on the head. Uh oh.

  4. This is better than killing two birds with one stone.

  5. Me gusta cómo has explicado el proceso mental del aprender una lengua extranjera... muy cierto!

    Por cierto, ojalá pudiera escribir en inglés como lo haces tú! Qué dominio!

  6. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

  7. Cliches get to be cliches by being true. I think the trick for authors is to take an old cliche and twist it around :

    The lady saving the knight.

    The wolf protecting the sheep.

    And make it funny and new. Ouch. Hard.

    Thanks for your comments on my blog. Greetings from a part Lakota in Louisiana, Roland

  8. An especially insightful and plunging post. Insightful because you know exactly what you're talking about when it comes to cliches. Plunging because you do scratch beneath the surface (that's my first cliche) and get to the essence of things (was that a second one?). But really, when we read, we most certainly don't want to be reading anything that is filled with terminology that we hear all the time. After so many words, we lose our interest for what we're reading, and we do want to move on. After all, there is a wealth of reading material from which to select, why would I feel stuck? Sometimes it is necessary to make a statement in that certain cliched way, but if not, any language is rich enough to where we can make up our own phrases to express exactly what it is we mean to say.

    And I'm curious about that book you were reading that you almost put down. What was it? You don't have to answer that, of course.

    Thank you for the always magnificent posts, Cuban!


  9. Hola Cuban!

    This was a joy to read-making "peace" with writing is making peace with yourself, and this is a good articulation of that pursuit :)

    My favorite quote in your post is this:

    "Haven’t you ever found yourself reading a book (fiction, poetry, scientific journal, whatever) and longed for a familiar phrase?"

    Isn't this, in a way, seeking to anchor our understanding through a cultural touchstone? Maybe not. Maybe it is a form of homesickness.

    It reminds me of when I read Julia Alvarez's "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents"-what a book! What a book for a teenaged Mexican girl looking for a meeting of her two worlds. There is one part that especially related to your contemplation on language, wherein a woman tries and tries to communicate love with her boyfriend but it becomes a frantic game of words-back and forth, useless.

    Oh no-attack of Maria's long posts again! Good post is what I meant to say :)

  10. I quite like the thread of introspection that runs through this post, Cuban! I, myself, am guilty of having used cliches in some of my posts, albeit grudgingly, but almost every one of those times I kind of justified their usage with a flippant comment like: I know it's a cliche, but it is a cliche for a reason.

    I will try to consciously use them with a little more spine from now on so that each cliche I use can stand on its own two feet, head held high. (Now how's that for a cliche-ridden statement? ;-))

    And I completely get the multi-lingual dilemma of the brain. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  11. A highly enjoyable post, Cuban. I might have said this to you before, but I think you have a big advantage in not being a native speaker of English in that your use of the language, while often idiomatic, is fresh and definitely not cliche-ridden. I have come across this before where the native language and perhaps even various other acquired languages lend a very interesting flavour to whatever tongue one is speaking/writing, and I don't mean in the way of making mistakes or using directly translated expressions. You have a big box of language tools to use, and as a result there is an originality in the way you write that monoglots just don't have access to.

    I love the way you write, and think. Sorry I haven't been able to catch up with everything you've posted lately - it's been a busy time and I never like to just skim your posts.

  12. I don't try particularly hard to avoid cliche in my blog (in fact, I don't really 'edit' my blog at all) but if I notice any that stand out in my fiction writing, I will take them out. But ultimately, communication relies on convention. You can never be completely original while being understood.

  13. Those damn cliches have a serious desire to creep along, insert themselves.
    The one I've heard most lately - "It is what it is."

    My worst failing as a teacher to non-native speakers is that family phrases (my father's mother/Ohio, teatoatler, Methodist, old line of poor folks...
    I am wedded to them, unthinkingly, and was work with a group of folks which included many Japanese women (they were so wonderful to work with, visually adept, hard working...) In talking about one of these young women's project, I said, "You've got a hard roe to hoe.." never thinking that this wouldn't mean a thing to her and I'd that I'd tangle myself up talking about farming, planting, explaining hoeing, weeding, etc. I think that the word antimacasser ( spelling?) came up in there, though i can't now imagine why it reared up, those crocheted arm and head-rests that women like grandma made and put on arm chairs to protect them from dirt. (My meticulous aunt Marion, who pulled dishes away before people had finished eating so she could start washing them, put a sheet on her living room couch so that uncle Roi wouldn't get it dirty with his garden clothes. I suppose that he refused to take them off when he came inside and, unreasonably, thought he was entitled to sit in the living room to read....if she'd pushed that tactic, he probably would have gone naked into the living room and then, oh my, someone might have seen him through the windows.... when their grandson was in high school, he made a video about their nightly dinner table quarrels. I wish I'd seen it.
    But as you see, I digress...a habit. And a cliche?

    A stitch in time saves nine.
    If it was a snake it would have bit me. (I used that just last week to a stranger.)
    It's always the last place you look.
    You can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.

  14. Cliches and sentimentality.. always on the lookout not to step into a well worn phrase, ot go for an easy tear..
    Yet, as you point out, when metaphors are stretched to the killing point, a fine howdy ya do will do!!
    Terrific post!

  15. Many thanks for your comments. And no, I don't mind long responses at all! On the contray, I welcome them!

    Nevine, the book to which I referred was 'El mar de Jade' (The Jade Sea), a novel by a Spanish writer. I found it atrocious.

    Thanks a lot for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  16. ...traigo

    desde mis


    CON saludos de la luna al
    reflejarse en el mar de la




  17. We turn everything English into Malay by adding "lah" at the end of the word. No lah, yes lah, can lah, okay lah.

  18. I always think of politicians and hack screenwriters when I think cliche but I love a good idiom. I did feel sorry for the poor teacher reading your cliche collage~!

  19. Cuban, it's always refreshing to read your writing. you get your point across with charisma and class. I especially enjoyed this analogy: ..."In this context the cliché is a metaphor for the acquaintance we come across at a dinner party where we don’t know anyone else. And although we discard them the minute we become the soul of the party (cruel, I know, but the show must go on) that person is there to act as a sign of convention...



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