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Cliches: They mark the man (or woman)

People in public life, or even those of us who write or appear occasionally in public, can become aware of the one thing that marks us as non-distinctive or even boring: the use of clichés.

I cannot understand why people pick up sayings, words, which were original and clever when they were first said, and repeat them endlessly. We all do it from time to time. Clichés stand out in a person’s personal presentation like a bandaged thumb.

Most come and go. Someone on late night TV, a news program or elsewhere uses a description, a clever name for some activity, a type of person, or an action that is memorable. “That sums it up,” we say to ourselves.

Many sayings are fostered by TV. Talking heads (there’s a cliché in itself) latch onto bright and incisive words or descriptions and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Here are some I’d like to ban: mano a mano,; whoo hoo;  into the weeds; dog whistles (what does that even mean?) uber. Many center about politics:  liberal bias; conservative think tank; lame stream media; and robust, especially robust. We need a robust discussion, a robust response, a robust conclusion to the matter.  And of course those perennial words amazing and embrace. Everything is amazing and we need to embrace it. The meaning of any one incident or happening or observation can be lost with these dull repetitions. You can make your own list.

Sometimes the repeats are phrases: “How has that worked for you?” “Just sayin’

Clichés are related to bromides and aphorisms and folk sayings. Many of our present-day sayings (which are actually disappearing in this age of the internet) originated as clever clichés. In Shakespeare’s time public servant Jack Horner took money from the till and so he became immortalized as “Little Jack Horner” who put his thumb into a pie and pulled out a plum. He became a nursery rhyme. When pioneers in America or in their earlier native lands wanted to show immediate action was necessary, they said “Strike while the iron is hot.” Pictures come into our present-day mind of someone ironing a pair of pants but it is of course a blacksmith at work.  If a certain saying becomes very popular and has life beyond the year it is said, it can enter the traditional domain. That’s not a real cliché.

How to make a presentation or even an important conversation distinctive? People in the public eye, on TV or speaking, can develop the habit of “considered phrasing.” We all think ahead a fraction of a second or two as we are speaking, whether with others or in front of an audience,  This is an instantaneous process. It’s easy to grab onto something others have said and occasionally salt conversation or speeches with well known present-day favorite sayings. It’s kind of fun to say them.  But there are synonyms and clever new ways of saying things we can all come up with, and they can mark us as original. We can move away from the expected into the unusual. It shows you, and I,  as un-ordinary and worth listing to.

Nancy Baxter is senior editor at Hawthorne Publishing.