Monkey see, monkey do. Writers and headline editors are like that. They see words and phrases in print and republish them so often they become clichés.
We have President Obama’s “signature” health care legislation and a basketball team’s “signature” moment. Almost anything is an icon or iconic. Novels are seminal. Books are legendary.
Employers no longer oppose Obamacare. They “push back.” The clichéd “shock and awe” now extends to soccer teams. “Gut-check.” “Reaching new levels.” People with an “attitude.” “Arguably” as in “sanitation workers are arguably invisible.” Clichés all.
Copy is sprinkled with unnecessary “of courses,” one of the most overused and usually useless expression. Everything is “famously” said. Even a soccer team “famously wears red and black.” “Existential” is a tiresome cliché but sounds intellectual. The cliché “Trope” is fancier than theme.
Other clichés: “at the end of the day,” “boggles the mind” and “spike” for rise. Others: people “nail it,” “speak truth to power,” “a game-changer” and every store is “shuttered” rather than closed.
Still others: “I have your back,” “tweak” tax plan and every social critic is a “public intellectual.” And that meaningless phrase: “The world as we know it.”
Some newspapers still cannot say died in obituaries, using the pious euphemism “passed away.” And still more clichés: “not on the radar,” “light at the end of the tunnel” and “ramp up.”
We get the learned-sounding “cognitive dissonance.” Presumably everyone knows what that means. I don’t. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as ”psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” Use that definition rather than be incomprehensible.
Ditto “counterintuitive lesson.” (Contrary to what you would expect.) Say it plainly. Avoid sesquipedalian (long and windy) words and phrases.
Some writers, trying to show that they are not sexist, write: “If you don’t hook the reader from the start you many not catch her at all.” Reverse sexism. Men are also readers. Make it plural readers with the object them.
Here’s another clichéd construction: “Welcome to the Digital Age.” Here’s a word that no writer should ever use: utilized. Columnist Russell Baker described it as “a fat, greasy, dripping word.”
Rather in “rather twisted idea” is a wasted word. So is “a somewhat shorthanded team.” More waste: “He’s quite adept on the field and very comfortable as the youngest player on the team.” Cut quite and very. “Died suddenly from a heart attack.” Heart attacks are sudden.
Mannerisms hobble writing: “It is the drop that nobody seems able to, well, drop.” Or this interjection: “ahem.” Or, “all these sort of, you know.” Or sophomoric constructions like this: “Oh, joy, we’re all rich again! Or not.” Too many people write “at about 7 a.m.” Make it at or about.
How many times have you read a variation of silliness like “make the world anew”? Or this book-jacket blurb: “the media revolution that will begin the world again.”
After every disaster like the Boston Marathon bombing we get nonsense columns like this: “Time for our sports to help us heal again.”
Finally, here’s some fun: count the number of clichés you encounter in one day’s newspaper, magazine and online reading. You might be surprised by the great number.
Jake Highton is an emeritus
journalism professor at the
University of Nevada, Reno.