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How To Revive The Worn Out Cliche


We turn now to a story about language. Did you cringe a little bit when you heard we turn now? I know, I know it's probably one of the most tired cliches in public radio - that and the old favorite let's take a listen. But here's the thing. Cliches are useful a lot of the times. Here in news, we find ourselves using them to signal something to you that is familiar because that's what these hardy little phrases do for us. To talk more about cliches, we have reached out to Orin Hargraves. He's the author of the book "It's Been Said Before: A Guide To The Use And Abuse Of Cliches." He joins me from KGNU in Boulder, Colorado. Thanks so much for being with us, Orin.

ORIN HARGRAVES: Oh, thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: OK, so right off the bat, I am going to say that I found it incredibly refreshing that, to a point, you defend the use of cliches because there is a utility there, right? I mean we use these because they help us.

HARGRAVES: There certainly is. I started out with the idea of the book that I was become a cliche killer and convince everyone that they couldn't be used. But then when I found that I could not avoid using them myself and studied them more in context, both in speech and in writing, I saw that they - really, they are inevitable, especially in speech. And they're very helpful sometimes. So they'll live on in language despite what anyone wants to do to get rid of them.

MARTIN: There's a real problem, especially in something like broadcast journalism, where you're trying to condense information in a familiar way.

HARGRAVES: That's a very good point. And I think of all the people who use cliches - and, of course, everyone does - journalists have to be excused first because, as you just said, they have to get out a great deal of information in a short time in a familiar way, in a way that's digestible.

MARTIN: Now that we've made, you know, ourselves feel better about the situation, where are they absolutely intolerable to you? Where should they be eradicated?

HARGRAVES: Oh, my goodness, if I wielded such power, what fun it would be. Certainly they should be eradicated from political speeches because then we would have to sit still for only one minute as opposed to 20. Writing is the place where it's a lot easier to get rid of cliches than elsewhere because you have the miracle of editing. In other words, you have a chance to look at what you've written before somebody else does. The fact that cliches are overly familiar makes us think that the person using them wasn't really thinking very hard, wasn't making any effort at all to be creative or to be precise. And, therefore, has committed a kind of failure of invention or creativity.

MARTIN: You've spent so much time thinking about cliches. Are you more attuned to them just when you're in conversations with friends or family? Are people really cautious around you, editing what they say all the time?

HARGRAVES: I think I can say I now have a kind of cliche switch so that I can become much more sensitive to them. When I was doing research on the book - and I have to admit I've been an NPR listener for years - I collected many of these cliches while actually listening to NPR News.

MARTIN: Because we were saying them all the time?

HARGRAVES: Well, yeah, you're journalists. You know, you have to. You can't avoid saying them. I had a message from a grad student the other day that really pleased me. I'd given him my book. And I think he absorbed it because he said to me - he's working on his dissertation. And at one point he wrote something along the lines of these differences provide ample food for thought. And he said then he looked up on his bookshelf and saw my book and felt guilty and went back and rephrased it more meaningfully, as he said, so that he could avoid the cliche food for thought. So I felt like that was a cure. I'd had my first success.

MARTIN: Orin Hargraves is a lexicographer and language researcher. His book is called "It's Been Said Before: A Guide To the Use And Abuse Of Cliches." It's been a pleasure. Thanks so much.

HARGRAVES: It's been a pleasure for me, too.


JIMMY BUFFETT: (Singing) Cliches, good ways, to say what you mean, mean what you say - to say what you mean and mean what you say. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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