The C-Word

I don’t like the C-Word.

I’m not talking about THE C-Word. I don’t have any issues with THE C-Word. There are some people who merit that particular word as a relatively accurate description.

Thinking about it, some of the worst things in the world, Cancer, Conservatives, Cyclists, all begin with the letter C, and are therefore eligible to be euphemistically tagged as ‘the C-Word’. But the C-Word I’m thinking of is far more hateful than any of those mentioned.

It’s the word cliché.

The website tells us this about the word cliché.

cliche (n.)

1825, “electrotype, stereotype,” from French cliché, a technical word in printer’s jargon for “stereotype block,” noun use of past participle of clicher “to click” (18c.), supposedly echoic of the sound of a mold striking metal (compare native click).

Originally, a cast obtained by letting a matrix fall face downward upon a surface of molten metal on the point of cooling, called in English type-foundries ‘dabbing.’ [OED]

Figurative extension to “trite phrase, worn-out expression” is first attested 1888, via the notion of the metal plate from which a print or design could be reproduced endlessly without variety, paralleling the sense evolution of stereotype. But this sense was not common in English until the 1920s, when it was identified as a French idiom. Related: Cliched (1928).

I think, we can accurately use the word to identify clichés such as ‘cold as ice’ or ‘as angry as a bear.’ These are clichés in the sense that they are ‘trite phrases’ and ‘worn out expressions.’ However, I despise the term when it is applied to aspects of a story.

For example, when people tell me, “Having a hard drinking private investigator is such a cliché,” I suspect they’re trying to hide a limited knowledge of story structure by using a French word that they think makes them sound impressive.

It doesn’t.

When people tell me that “the happy ever after conclusion in a romance is a cliché,” I immediately understand that they don’t read romances and (like the previously mentioned buffoon) they don’t know how to properly apply the term cliché. I have heard each of the following (and more) described as being clichés:

A couple bickering to disguise their passionate feelings for each other.

A western bar room falling silent as the heroic gunslinger pushes through the saloon doors.

The car chase at the end of a thriller.

None of these are clichés. Admittedly, some of these tropes have been used repeatedly but it’s worth remembering that some readers turn up solely for the pleasure of seeing the couple bicker before declaring their love, or sensing the tension when the gunslinger is the focus of so much animosity, or watching cars perform manoeuvres that no sane person would attempt in the real world. These aren’t clichés: these are merely repeated devices that continue to entertain readers.

I suppose the reason why I despise this usage of this C-Word so passionately is because it’s used as such a smug stamp of authoritative dismissal by people who don’t really know what they’re saying.

Perhaps the hard-drinking PI is someone we’ve seen before, but we read PI stories to meet characters who are larger than life (and have livers that are larger than life) and a habit of overindulging tells us straight away that this character is someone who doesn’t do things in half measures.

Perhaps the happy ever after conclusion to a romance is something that has been done repeatedly but, if we’re considering happiness, a romance can only ever end in one of two ways: happily or unhappily. Given that there are more than 2,000 romance novels released each year, and their conclusions can be either happy or unhappy, even with a 50/50 split we’re looking at 1,000 of each. This means the trope will be repeated, but that doesn’t mean it’s a cliché.

Which is my way of saying, if someone reads your work and says your writing is full of clichés, unless they’re pointing out phrases like ‘full of beans’ or ‘hard as nails’, you must explain that repeated tropes in fiction are not clichés – they’re narrative devices that help readers stay grounded in a particular genre.

You might then want to tell them that cliché is a C-Word, and maybe tell them one of the other C-Words you know.

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