Clichés provide helping hand in language
are tried and true, but they deliver the goods. They’re
clichés and people talk in clichés and write
in clichés far more than we realize. But that is OK,
says a Sacramento State linguistics professor. He believes
that those overused expressions play a valuable role in everyday
language and provide insight into how the mind works.
serve as a sort of shorthand when we communicate with each
other. They carry the meaning of a shared experience,”
said Alexandre Kimenyi, professor of linguistics, ethnic studies
and African Studies at Sacramento State. “The danger
we run into is that using clichés can keep us from
was recently honored at Sacramento State when he was chosen
to deliver the prestigious John C. Livingston Annual Faculty
that the study of clichés has been overlooked by linguists
who have focused more on the syntax of language to gain insight
into how the mind works.
serve a role in cognition, Kimenyi said, because they communicate
common thoughts and shared experiences without formal structure.
“You can look at clichés as building blocks to
sentence structure because they help people absorb, retain
and retrieve large amounts of information. When people use
a cliché it is almost like a universal language and
people know exactly what you mean,” Kimenyi said.
clichés can be damaging as well if they perpetuate
stereotypes. Kimenyi cited examples of clichés that
refer to Africa as “dark Africa” or “the
dark continent.” “This is an example of a prepackaged
idea that Africa is a continent that no one knows about and
has not seen the light yet,” he said.
developed a deep interest in clichés while he gathered
research for an upcoming book on metaphors. He began noticing
that his students would often use clichés in research
papers. “I started to point out clichés to students
to encourage them do their own original thinking and writing
for their work,” he said. “Most of my students
didn’t realize they were using clichés and most
people don’t either.”
search for clichés has become a relentless hunt for
the linguist. Every day for the past four years, Kimenyi has
combed the New York Times for what he considers clichés.
He has collected more than 4,000 at last count.
Kimenyi says that clichés come in a variety of grammatical
forms. For example, some are similes such as “mad as
hell, “cool as a cucumber,” or “poor as
a church mouse.”
Some are phrases with verbs like “to keep at arm’s
length,” “to drop the other shoe” or “to
have second thoughts.” Then there are others that are
phrases with nouns and adjectives such as “a rhetorical
question,” “a cheap shot “or “a foregone
others use poetic devices such as repetition, rhythm or rhyme.
Consider “troubled times,” “sunny skies,”
“a bitter battle” or “dime a dozen.”
Some use paired expressions such as “by leaps and bounds,”
“rank and file” and “move heaven and earth.”
Then there are clichés that contain rhetorical devices
such as redundancy, paradox or contrast like “poetic
justice,” “second to none” or “to
talk the talk and walk the walk.”
list goes on.
But clichés are here to stay, Kimenyi said. “Clichés
are an important part of language and they deserve more study.
They give us a glimpse into our collective thinking of the
world in which we live in.”