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Martin Amis . . . The “War on Clichés” August 8, 2013

Posted by nrhatch in Word Play, Writing & Writers.

snoopy-&-linus-pumpkin-pathMartin Amis, a British literary wit, doesn’t care one whit for expressions that have been through the wash so many times they’ve become threadbare.

Or, as he puts it, “dead freight” and “herd words.”

As indicated in this interview with Charlie Rose, Martin’s a poster child for the “war on clichés.”

I suspect Mr. Amis discarded his “security blanket” long before Linus . . . while rolling his eyes and proclaiming disdain, “Oh, that old thing?  It’s so yesterday.”

Aah . . . that’s better!

What say you?

Do you avoid or embrace clichés that convey an instant connection to your intended audience?

Related post:  WP Daily Prompt ~ YAWN


1. shreejacob - August 8, 2013

I can get pretty cliched ( no idea how to insert that fancy little c in the word!)…especially when I ramble. But you know, most of them really do say it all in those few words. We just don’t pay much attention to the meanings behind them, I think!

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

True confession: Neither do I. I include the accent in cliché by cutting and pasting the word “cliché” from elsewhere.

Perhaps that’s the biggest problem with clichés . . . if they become too ubiquitous, they become invisible. A bit like “LOL” or “ROTF.” Do we ever picture someone on the other side of the computer screen rolling on the floor or laughing out loud? Probably not.

But when I type “mrgreen” . . . you can be sure that I AM grinning from ear to ear. Is “grinning from ear to ear” a cliché? :mrgreen:

shreejacob - August 8, 2013

Hehe…during chat I can be shameless. I type “LOL” and then follow it up with…it wasn’t a real lol, but I did grin widely or I’ll ask “Hey do you really LOL when you LOL on chat?” LOL! (that was a real lol..just a little more silent than an actual LOL)

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

Text Speak is the ultimate cliché. Mr. Amis will never use an LOL or a ROTFLOL to convey mirth and merriment. His eyes would roll back into their sockets at the very thought. 🙄

You can bank on that. 😉

2. suzicate - August 8, 2013

I try to avoid them on the page, but I admit they float through my head often.

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

My tendency is to reach for words that will get my thoughts across clearly. If a cliché does the trick, great.

Why reinvent the wheel . . . or the toaster strudel? 😉

3. aawwa - August 8, 2013

Interesting video 🙂

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

Poets and Writers pointed me in the direction of the video.

As a general rule, we should avoid hackneyed phrases and trite expressions . . . but “if the shoe fits, wear it.” 😛

4. William D'Andrea - August 8, 2013

Another interpretation for LOL is “Lots of Love”. That could also be a cliche, unless you mean it.

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

People who pepper their communications with certain “politically correct” expressions often don’t mean what they say.

5. alienorajt - August 8, 2013

I love your post: made me laugh, made me think! I try and avoid cliche’s vast net where possible, don’t like to get entangled in it. But what I do,from time to time, is to give a cliche a good kick up the posterior. The resulting bruise can be great fun to play with. Politically Correct expressions?! Agghhhh! Can’t be doing with ’em! Alienora

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

Thanks, Alienora! I think twisting clichés around to suit us makes them far more noticeable. They step out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

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8. Don - August 8, 2013

The problem Nancy is the speed with which words and phrases nowadays become clichés. I like what he says about the simple act matching your perceptions.with your words – natural expression

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

Yes! Good thoughts, Don. When “Valley Girls” were in vogue and all the rage, I avoided emulating them But now that they’ve passed out of the spotlight, they are once again fair game.

I wouldn’t try to find a cliché to fit a given situation . . . but if one demands air time I don’t mind hanging it out there. As you note, natural expression is best.

9. spilledinkguy - August 8, 2013

Hahaha… Martin Amis would LOVE me. Or… you know… not.

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

Totally! 😛

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11. Andra Watkins - August 8, 2013

I try to avoid them. I don’t know if I succeed.

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

I’ve never noticed you relying on “black as night” or “fresh as a daisy” or “pure as the driven snow” to get your points across, Andra.

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13. Eric Tonningsen - August 8, 2013

Cliches, adages, nanaisms and Mrs. Malaprop’s… They’re timeless and I use them, freely, when apropos. Mr. Amis is certainly entitled to his opinion. 🙂

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

As you may have noticed, I am all for using and sharing succinct quotes, adages, aphorisms, and proverbs, however cliché. If they are timeless, and many are, I love to sprinkle them about.

Mr. Amis is entitled to his opinion, but I shall not allow him to be the arbiter of my means and methods of communication.

If it works for me, it works. 😉

Eric Tonningsen - August 8, 2013

True that!

14. colonialist - August 8, 2013

What would I do without them? In quoted speech, they provide the words one’s character would almost certainly have used, in descriptions they give an image the readers are familiar with, and lastly they provide ammunition for the best-sliced wordplay since being bred.

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

Hahaha! I was hoping you’d weigh in on this weighty issue of well-sliced wordplay, Col. I do like using well worn, loved, and known expressions as a springboard at times . . .

Instead of “great minds think alike” -> “great minds like a think.”

colonialist - August 9, 2013

That has sheer elegance. Love it.

nrhatch - August 9, 2013

I wish I could claim credit for it . . . it’s actually the new marketing slogan for The Economist.


15. Tom Merriman - August 8, 2013

I probably use clichés all the time, Nancy, and don’t notice. I just type away and then quickly read through, changing things if they don’t make sense. I don’t use LOLs or ROFLs very often however.

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

I like reading your posts . . . they flow in an easy pleasing fresh and original way. I’ve never noticed you being top-heavy in your use of clichés.

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17. kateshrewsday - August 8, 2013

What an interesting interview, Nancy. “I say the words again and again in my head until they sound right.” I think great writers have an element of the musician about them. The very sound of the words is part of who they are on the page. Amis is famously a very male, sparse writer who makes every word work for him. But there are other ways than totally avoiding what has been said before, again and again, just because it is overused.

I used to hate Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet theme, because I had heard it so many times in trashy contexts. Then I met a world expert on Tchaikovsky, and he re-opened my eyes and my ears, and I could hear its greatness. In the same way, the old ways and forms and words: they have their place. Amis has no time for them. Perhaps, as in Time’s Arrow, he goes through the process of using the cliches and then un-writes them.

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Kate. However cliché that nail pounding might be.

Your posts have a decided musical quality to them. As Carnell said the other day ~ reading your posts seems familiar and fresh at the same time . . . like walking into a familiar room using a different door.

18. kateshrewsday - August 8, 2013

I’m back. I found some words at my friend Kathy Waller’s blog which seemed the perfect antidote to Martin Amis’s. They belong to Eudora Welty. She likens using familiar words, words heard before, to ‘sending a bucket down a well.’

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

Loved the Eudora Welty quote . . . and her indulgent joking about goat. Words are so magical ~ especially when expressed in just the right order.

19. sufilight - August 8, 2013

On occasion I use LOL and at others I type “hahaha” and add an emoticon when I find something truly funny; emoticons do not always convey the intensity of my reaction. 😀

nrhatch - August 8, 2013

I’m far more flexible and relaxed about word choice on SLTW than I would be in writing a non-fiction book, a short story, or a novel (except, perhaps, for the dialogue).

My favorite emoticon is “mrgreen” . . . he’s got a great smile. :mrgreen:

20. Tammy - August 8, 2013

This certainly got the conversation going. I think I’m a bit Amis. I like less and the less familiar.

nrhatch - August 9, 2013

Writing that seems fresh and alive pulls me in too, but if I’m thinking about HOW the author wrote IT, it’s probably because the writing is getting in the way of the story.

The best writing, in my mind, takes a back seat to the information being conveyed. Language that’s too fussy or musty can detract rather than embellish. Language that’s too spartan can leave us hungry for more. Etc.

Language is a tool to enhance communication. Anytime it gets in the way of that objective (due to ostentation or excessive plumage), it ceases being a tool and becomes an impediment to wade through.

21. pix & kardz - August 9, 2013

what an interesting interview – and a great post to come back to after being from blogging away for a while. i think clichés are a part of our language, and a language that doesn’t come up with fresh ones is a dead language, such as Latin. with all due respect to Latin scholars, of course.
yet at the same time, if i may use that cliché, i also think that coming up with unique ways of saying things is a good challenge for the writer to constantly improve their skills and it also makes it interesting for readers.
i think readers have higher expectations when it comes to writing for blogs or magazines than they do for reading text mails or speaking face to face. reading a novel some time ago, or trying to, i found the author’s overuse of cliché in the narrative of the text to be rather tiring. i did attempt another reading but gave up on it in the end. the writing style kept reminding me that i was reading a book. my favourite reads are those which grip me and make me think about what has been written, without being distracting by how it has been written. does that make sense?
as a confession, i probably use clichés more than i am aware, and this has been a good challenge rethink my own writing style.
thanks for sharing!

nrhatch - August 9, 2013

“my favourite reads are those which grip me and make me think about what has been written, without being distracting by how it has been written. does that make sense?”

YES! When I read something and become so mesmerized by the flow of words that evaluating the writing techniques and style never even crosses my mind . . . that’s the best!

22. Pix Under the Oaks - August 9, 2013

I don’t know!!! I am sure I do. I have never thought about it. Interesting subject Nancy!

nrhatch - August 9, 2013

Thanks, Pix. When we reach for the next word, and the next, and the next, our writing improves if we don’t pull from the front of the shelf each time. By creating phrases that are somewhat less familiar, we inspire readers to pause and take note.

But if readers are sidelined by unique and peculiar phrases, if they stall in the tracks trying to ascertain meaning in the words we’ve chosen, we may have missed the mark.

Pix Under the Oaks - August 9, 2013

I am pretty sure I use peculiar phrases.. 😀

nrhatch - August 10, 2013

We’re all a peculiar bunch of grapes, aren’t we? 😛

23. jannatwrites - August 10, 2013

I don’t actively set out to use or avoid cliches. I’d rather make up unique descriptions, but it’s entirely possible that cliches slip in once in a while. I can say that I haven’t started a story out with, “It was a dark and stormy night…” 🙂

nrhatch - August 10, 2013

Same here. I roll words around and let them spill out in pleasing patterns that aren’t obvious obstacles or roadblocks to what I’m trying to convey. If a cliché wanders into the mix, so be it.

24. Three Well Beings - August 10, 2013

I think it would be a good discipline to determine if I’m overusing clichés. I’m not sure! I do know that when I am in a conversation I can mix metaphors to the point I sometimes laugh at my own combinations. When it’s important, I can hold back, but in casual conversation, I don’t worry too much. When I write? I’m aware of metaphors, but not so sure about clichés. It’s a good question!

nrhatch - August 11, 2013

Yes! Nothing like a mixed metaphor to bring the point home in casual conversation. In responding to your comment on the decoy dummy post, I found myself typing “just what the doctored ordered.”

How cliché! 🙄

25. pattyabr - August 13, 2013

Sadly I use cliches. My mother was the cliche queen. I need to rid them from my language especially at work.

nrhatch - August 14, 2013

Good luck, but don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. If a cliché gets your thoughts across with no stumbling blocks or impediments, then it has served its purpose. :mrgreen:

26. Perfecting Motherhood - August 14, 2013

Labeling is easy and lazy. It takes a lot more effort to know someone and not label them. I read a great book on parenting that said to ban labeling your kids for life, or they grow up living by that label. The author said it was better to say “he tends to, sometimes he does this…” rather than say “he is…”. I work very hard not to label my kids, my friends’ kids, my friends and other people I know, as tempting as it can be.

nrhatch - August 14, 2013

Same here. Or I stick with labels they’ll want to wear for the rest of their lives:

* She’s AMAZING!
* He’s GREAT to be around.

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