When Is A Cliché Not A Cliché?

I seem to be running a one-woman vendetta against the so-called ‘rules’ of writing, which strike me ever more like literary use-by dates, or a way of making decisions that prevents us from engaging our own senses in the matter. Just recently I keep coming across cries of ‘cliché!’ where I’m not convinced that a) it is a cliché or b) that it matters even so.

So, the definition of a cliché is:

is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.’

But how are we to distinguish this from a phrase or an idiom or a maxim? It seems to me that the word cliché gets used for all of them. Where for instance, on the scale of cliché would you place such phrases as: ‘the answer to a prayer’ or ‘to make life a misery for someone’ or ‘not to have a leg to stand on’, all common expressions that I’ve come across recently in literary texts that sounded fine in context to me. Or even trickier, how would you evaluate the way that certain verbs take a limited number of objects? For instance, flirting with death or disaster are the other linguistic options to flirting with people (which tells you all you need to know about flirtation, I think). If we’ve only got two other options beyond the obvious one, should we avoid them through inevitable overuse? On the other end of the scale, taking someone for granted is a well-worn phrase not least because it’s the neatest, most economical way of describing a situation that commonly exists. Does that mean I have to avoid it, and find some sprawling circumlocution instead?

I found this site, a comprehensive list of clichés, and it’s positively enormous. Just from the list beginning with ‘a’, I found the following, which I would argue against as clichés:

Abandon ship – are captains in crisis now supposed to think up linguistically creative ways of expressing this?

Achilles heel – how else would we designate this part of the body? And what other way is there of expressing the figurative idea, except by long-winded explanation?

As luck would have it/As the crow flies – are these really without meaning now, or unpleasant to the ear?

Already got one paw on the chicken coop/As welcome as a skunk at a lawn party – not that I’m enamoured of either phrase, but I’d never heard of them before in my life. They can’t be clichés to me in that case.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it’s a quotation, and unavoidable at funerals.

Then there’s this site, which quite interestingly lists the most disliked clichés, as voted for somewhere or other online. Can we really object to individual words, like ‘literally’ and ‘actually’? We might dislike the frequency or lack of accuracy with which they are used, but that doesn’t make them clichés according to the definition of the term.

It’s also interesting how many clichés first came to life as jargon, particularly in the business world or on the sports field – blue sky scenario, thinking outside of the box, going forward, etc. Is jargon just cliché in waiting? It particularly tickled me to find so many online articles relating to business writing entitled ‘clichés to avoid like the plague’. Do you think they know what they did there? (and is that one still permissible or is it exhausted now?)

And what if you wanted to use a cliché but in an ironic or knowing way? What if you wanted to say ‘better the devil you know’ or ‘all’s fair in love and war’ either because the very triteness of the phrase indicates there is much more beyond it, or because despite the vastness of human nature, it sometimes happens that people behave and situations evolve just as they have always done for thousands of years. I don’t like this thought that whole areas of language have been forbidden to me. I remember Colette saying that it was pointless to search for new and outlandish ways of saying things; the best you could hope for was that one word, by its proximity, would freshen another up.  Isn’t it best sometimes to consider how a phrase works in a passage, rather than condemn it out of hand?

But then, I think my sense of cliché is very different to that of other people. Here’s the sort of thing that bothers me in narrative: when protagonists bite their lip or chew at their thumbnail in moments of indecision, or when they sigh a lot before speaking. I think it should be banned for would-be lovers to hate each other initially, and I’m not sure that vampires can be used for anything at all for at least a decade now. Linguistic clichés can make me laugh, they can have a resonance or a musicality that pleases. Situational clichés, behavioural clichés, I find much more annoying.