See what I did there?
SO. MUCH. CLEVERNESS. I can’t even!
*Insert VERY AMUSING GIF here*
Am I giving you ALL THE FEELS yet?
Are you ready to throw up a little bit in your mouth?
If not, I’m pretty sure someone is. There’s a virtual pandemic of throwing-up-in-your-mouth going on (but usually just a little bit). Reports of this peculiar malady are being regurgitated all over the internet ad nauseam.
One of the problems with clichés is that they weren’t always clichés. I just threw up a little bit in my mouth was a clever way to express disgust ten years ago. The first, say, twenty or thirty times I saw it, I was amused. Now I find myself desperately wishing that someone would claim they projectile vomited last night’s dinner across three state lines. Even a mention of blowing chunks or tossing cookies would be refreshing at this point; I would also be fine with, I think I’m gonna barf.
And let us consider, for a moment, I can’t even, and its kissing cousin, I just can’t. I just can’t . . . believe so many writers are at such a loss to find more interesting ways to convey disbelief or amazement. I can do it, and it doesn’t take superpowers. What’s more, if I’m not gonna lie, what if I just don’t? Doesn’t that work? In any case, it’s in everyone’s best interest to vet my claims whether or not I profess credibility.
Just putting that out there.
Even strikeouts are a bit clichéd, although I have to admit they don’t bother me as much as a few other relatively recent stylistic obsessions. Such. As. Periods. After. Every. Word. Those full-stops make it sound like a five-year-old is reading aloud in my head. AND CAPITAL LETTERS. I am prone to migraines, so I prefer not to be subjected to all that virtual yelling.
Clichés have been around ever since the first cave dweller came up with a compelling way to grunt something that lots of other people decided to imitate—in other words, as long as language has been in existence. Language evolves over time, and some clichés eventually become useful as idioms that no longer draw attention to what was once intended as cleverness (think “butterflies in the stomach,” which is now a fairly innocuous way to convey nervousness). What is new are the staggering numbers of clichés that are entering the lexicon, due to, obviously, the internet specifically, and digitization and globalization in general. It is as if clichés have become an invasive species of vapidity and triteness rapidly choking out hundreds of years of old-growth expressions.
The sources of clichés, however, remain largely the same. Every generation has always had its special words and phrases that offer a group identity of sorts. We all want to set ourselves apart from the people who came before us; to leave a message that says not just “I was here,” but “we were here.” But with so many clichés, it becomes far too easy to avoid saying anything original. What is more, because modern Western society unfortunately fetishizes youth culture, the same clichés introduced (or adopted) by the younger generation are easily and eagerly embraced by parents, grandparents, and even your Great-Great Aunt Hattie, who lives ten miles north of nowhere.
I am a librarian at a middle school, and our school counselors have assured me that it’s normal, age-appropriate behavior for adolescents to want to look like each other, talk like each other, and text, post, tweet, and chat like each other. It’s part of how they figure out how to get along in a social world, and our world is nothing if not social. But as we get older, we become more and more comfortable becoming unique individuals. At least, that’s the goal. The fact that adolescence now extends well into the twenties is not helping. Certainly, though, when adults in their thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond behave—or write—like Stepford-style robots, it’s just plain creepy.
That said, it’s impossible to avoid clichés entirely. Obviously, I’ve used many clichés purposely and ironically in this post, but there’s others I’ve included simply out of stylistic convenience, and no doubt there are more that I’m not even aware of. Even if through some Herculean effort each of us were able to express every thought distinctively, we would likely succeed only in rendering ourselves unintelligible. There’s a fine line between seeking originality for originality’s sake and discovering one’s own unique voice.
Some clichés are more clichéd than others, and to some extent it’s a personal preference—what grates on my nerves may not bother you at all. Not all of the most flagrant offenders originate with young people; the jargon of academia, business, and journalism is all part of the current linguistic stew. Jargon used to remain fairly insulated, but today it not only crosses between disciplines, but also bleeds freely into popular culture. Certain buzzwords and catchphrases are so indiscriminately splattered across various media platforms that they stand out like tomato sauce on a white shirt. Engage is one example. No longer reserved for marriage proposals, we now engage where we once might have absorbed, attracted, captivated, excited, or interested. Another example is resonate. Nothing makes an impression, affects, rings true, appeals, hits home, or strikes a chord anymore; instead, it always resonates. And when politicians say something dumb, they currently have only two options: they can double down, or they can walk it back. We’re not assigned jobs or responsibilities these days; we’re tasked with them. And absolutely everything is iconic. Elvis is an iconic rock star—okay, maybe. But it’s also fair game to call the Big Mac an iconic sandwich. I’m very uncomfortable calling a sandwich an icon.
I could go on and on. In fact, I’m beginning to feel as though I have.
At the end of the day
In the final analysis
What is scary to me is that so many posts, so many blogs, so many articles, sound as if they are written by the same person. It isn’t just the specific clichés used, although that is certainly a large part of it. The tone is the same. The style is the same. The pacing is the same. So many people write in the same voice, or a slight variation of it. Fortunately, this voice doesn’t always express the same opinions (yet . . . I worry that is coming). It’s not the content; it’s the delivery. This voice is a bit snarky, but not overtly sarcastic; it’s a bit clever, but not explicitly intellectual.
This voice says: I will judge you. And it says so in precisely those clichéd words.
To that, I say: Judge not, lest ye be judged.
And also, find your own voice, before you accidentally become everybody else.