Bored with a cliché-ridden conversation? Want to turn the worst second-hand language into gems of cleverness? Well, you came to the right can of worms!
Cliché is a French onomatopoeia meaning “click”: the sound an old-fashioned typesetter makes as he taps melted lead against a cast, making a stereotype—a block of type that can be reused. People think largely in terms of stereotypes and clichés—prefab chunks of information and attitudes that combine to form perceptions and understanding.
There are three basic ways to use a cliché for memorability.
1. Reinforce it.
I mean, reinforce it ironically. The easiest method entails embracing the literal meaning of the expression and then taking it as far as possible. When President Obama nominated Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, she responded with a political cliché: she said she was “humbled” by the appointment. Why being appointed to one of the most powerful posts in government is “humbling” escapes me, but apparently Washington is full of these suddenly humble souls.
Some snappy answers (to be delivered at the TV or radio in front of an appreciative family):
You: Oh, I don’t blame you. It pays less than most Washington lawyers make.
You: Jeez, you do look humbled. Your posture is terrible.
You: Yeah, I’d feel humbled too if my office dress code was Methodist Church Choir.
None of those words would be engraved on your tombstone (which really would be humbling); but you could acquire a reputation for your witty virtual retorts. The point here is to agree with the speaker disagreeably. Think about the most over-the-top way of agreeing.
Significant Other: Wake up, sleepy-head! The early bird catches the worm!
You: You bet. I’m going to catch that worm and murder the early-rising son of a night crawler.
While ironic reinforcement gives more immediate satisfaction, you can buck up a cliché without any irony at all, especially if you happen to agree with it.
Friend: There’s nothing new under the sun.
You: Not even the sun.
Friend: The most important thing in a marriage is a sense of humor.
You: A big, impressive [comedic pause] sense of humor.
Whoa, your entendre just doubled. Nonetheless, you did what every red-hot lover of language should do. You cherished the cliché, had a moment of intimacy, and then did your best to make something of it.
2. Undercut it.
Admittedly, most clichés don’t deserve such tender treatment, and you may have the intense desire to cut a cliché’s legs out from under it. If it happens to be a bit of illogical nonsense, you can try the If You’re So Smart Why Aren’t You Rich ploy. It works like this:
If you’re X, then why is (or isn’t) Y?
Here’s how you’d use it to humiliate the humbled Elena Kagan:
You: If you’re so humbled, why didn't you drive your own car here?
You: Humbled. Right. I don’t see you kissing my ring.
Or you could simply attack the cliché’s logic.
You: Anyone who can be humbled by a Supreme Court nomination has completely forgotten seventh grade.
Another, more memorable way to undercut a cliché has you comparing the claim with a more extreme example.
You: You would feel even more humbled if you had shown up without your pants, like I did once.
You: You’re humbled? Yesterday I boarded the wrong boss from SeaTac and ended up in Tacoma. That’s humbling.
Note that the two techniques we just covered—supporting a cliché ironically, and undercutting it—don’t just work in rebuttal. Ms. Kagan herself could make herself more popular by employing them in her speech.
Kagan: I’m very humbled by this nomination. And I find the robes extremely unflattering.
Kagan: I find this very humbling. Not as humbling as I imagine the Senate hearings will be, but humbling nonetheless.
Advisors probably told Kagan to withhold her wit. The whole secret of a successful Senate confirmation is to make yourself as uncontroversial as possible. Yet John Roberts breezed through his hearings with a refreshing show of humor and humility that revealed an actual human being. And as far as I can tell, he didn’t say he was humbled. Not once. There’s an honest man for you.
3. Improve it.
Which brings us to the third way to deal with a cliché: fix it up. Just making the statement a little more poetic could make it memorable. Let’s try what I call the Corny Comparison:
Kagan: I’m as humbled as the donkey that the mule breeder chose to mate with a racehorse.
Okay, maybe not in this instance. For one thing, I’m told the donkey is usually a male. Besides, equine sex may not be the proper thing for a Supreme Court nomination. Try again.
Kagan: I feel just as humbled as I did in high school, when I got elected class president after my opponent came down with mono.
Better. We managed to throw in a resume item in a self-deprecating manner. But it might be better to dredge up a more relevant anecdote.
Kagan: I feel as humbled as when Justice Righteous chose me to clerk for him after law school. I managed to spill coffee on my new suit just before the interview, and he said, “I don’t choose my clerks for their style.” Mr. President, I’m glad you feel the same way.
I made up the coffee spilling incident, unfortunately. (The pants incident, however, was true.) Ten minutes’ intensive internet research did not reveal any coffee spilling in the nominee’s background; but everyone has a foible to exploit for self-deprecating purposes. It puts a smile on the faces of extremely bored reporters…no, it would actually raise a genuine appreciative laugh. Washington is just that humor-starved. Her little tale wouldn’t guarantee her nomination, but it would have made every Republican Senator who voted against her look ever so slightly like more of a jerk for nixing such a nice person.
Outside of writing classes and good literature, people have a surprisingly high tolerance for a well-delivered cliché. So if it isn’t broke, as the saying goes (and it goes everywhere), don’t fix it. Instead, just customize it to make it fit the occasion.
Several customization tools come to mind:
- Add an appropriate word or two to the beginning ormiddle.
- Swap a word.
- Set the cliché in a particular context, using the “equivalent of” method.
- Do the same thing with the “only with” method.
- Pun it, by inserting a pun or using it in a Feghoot.
- Use it in an unusual context.
Let’s take the stereotyping, hurtful, abusive cliché, “Men never ask for directions.” Before we doctor it, you should know that I ask directions all the time. On Google Maps, and on my smartphone. I know many men who do this. My unwillingness to stop at a gas station merely to ask directions—a reluctance that my wife loves to point out—has to do in part with a traumatic experience many years ago that entailed losing Lake Michigan during a run in Chicago and asking directions from a pair of cops who thought it hilarious that I couldn’t find a Great Lake. These cops, by the way, were men.
Anyway, let’s trying inserting something specific here. The easiest insertion of all is an adjective that modifies the cliché’s subject or object. Just fill in the blanks.
[Blank] men never ask for directions
Men never ask for [blank] directions.
A woman who wants to explain why young men tend to make clumsy lovers could say, “Horny men never ask for directions.” Notice that by setting the cliché in a new context, you change the meaning of “directions.” (It’s that darn double entendre again!) You could achieve the same effect more elegantly by filling in the second blank:
You: Men never ask for love-making directions.
I’m growing tired of that cliché. Let’s try another:
Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
We can use this cliché to demonstrate adding a surprise to the end. Suppose you wanted to make fun of the bankers who mucked up the world’s finances in 2009.
You: For them it was six of one, half a dozen of the other, and they somehow still got seven.
Movie screenwriters love to rework clichés—when they’re not gushing it outright like Gulf of Mexico oil, that is. One of the champion cliché-benders, Chuck Palahniuk, worked stereotypical wonders in Fight Club, a truly weird film that uses clichés to keep at least one foot grounded in reality. After the fight club has several characters bloody each other up, the Brad Pitt character yells ecstatically, “We just had a near-life experience, fellas!” A brilliant line that just simply swapped one word for its opposite. I’m guessing that Palahniuk thought of that line years before and jotted it down in his journal for just such an occasion. And even if we didn’t, we should.
Clichés give us a springboard into wit, from terra firma into, um, the firmament of wit. Take this line from the 1957 movie “The Sweet Smell of Success”:
Hunsecker: No. You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.
Hunsecker, the mean agent, is telling a guy that he’s a nobody in show business—the cliché line being, “You’re dead.” The movie stretches that line by taking the logic into absurdity. If somebody can hear the news that he’s dead, then he should be able to bury himself. Makes perfect sense.
In that same movie, that same mean character confides, “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.” He’s taking a cliché right out of the Bible—Matthew 6:3, to be exact—when Jesus says “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In Hunsecker’s case, his charitable left hand has gone missing entirely.
But he achieved immortality nonetheless. All by playing with a cliché.