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October 24, 2005

Professor: Clichés provide helping hand in language

They 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.

“Clichés 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 critical thinking.”

Kimenyi was recently honored at Sacramento State when he was chosen to deliver the prestigious John C. Livingston Annual Faculty Lecture.

He said 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.

Clichés 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.

However, 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.

Kimenyi 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.”

The 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 conclusion.”

Still 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.”

And Kimenyi’s 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.”

Ted DeAdwyler



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