What is a cliché? Does it necessarily point to a lack of inventiveness or originality? A cliché is a French word that is related to photography and somehow sums up, epitomizes ideas that usually...

What is a cliché? Does it necessarily point to a lack of inventiveness or originality?

 A cliché is a French word that is related to photography and somehow sums up, epitomizes ideas that usually fall within the scope of everyday life. Clichés are overused words and phrases that are sadly lacking in originality and inventiveness. Through punning and wordplay, it is nonetheless possible to give them true life, genuine expression and authenticity. Do you think Shakespeare's plays are a particularly striking instance of contemporary clichés used as material tapped for a more authentic mode of writing? Which of his plays are most relevant in this respect?   

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You've got the scenario regarding Shakespeare and cliches turned around backwards. Shakespeare didn't use "contemporary cliches" that he "tapped" for "a more authentic mode of writing." Shakespeare generally originated the expressions that have been borrowed till they've become "overused" and developed into "cliches" that "are sadly lacking in originality and inventiveness." When Shakespeare wrote expressions that are now cliche, like "compare thee to a summer day," he was epitomizing the height of inventiveness and originality by newly creating breathtaking metaphors. For this reason, Shakespeare's writing is a higher mode of authentic writing. For us today, in our writing, it is best in many instances to analyze what a tempting cliche actually means ("summer day": fresh and warm and full of life and bloom), then find our own metaphor for a lovely person who is fresh and warm and full of life: e.g., compare you to an ocean misted rose garden. A cliche is a phrase that was once vivid but that has become meaningless through overuse.


qejtzuk eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The common understanding of the term cliché is that of overuse and unoriginality. Previous posts to the contrary notwithstanding, that is what most people mean by using the term.

Is it a problem? It is in two ways:

I find that most teenage writers use clichés because they've heard them, not because they understand them. A cliché dulls the senses; we don't pay attention to the words because we've heard them so often. If we write to be understood, we awaken the ear.

If originality matters, avoid clichés. Or refresh them with new spins.

My theory is that clichés become clichés only because they were fresh expressions at some point in time. They wear out with overuse. I tell my poetry students that if they write something today that becomes a cliché in thirty or fifty years, they've achieve near-immortality in writing.


mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly, there are many phrases and sentences quoted from Shakespeare's Hamlet.  These phrases, of course, were not trite or overworked until people began using them in the unoriginal manner of repeating what they have heard. As Bernard Levin in his book Enthusiasms declares, Shakespearean phrases "remain alive in his mouth even if they do not in ours. So, cliches do, indeed, point to lack of originality on the part of the modern speaker/writer.

Here are some from Hamlet,

"neither a borrower nor a lender be"

"the lady doth protest too much"

something is "rotten in Denmark"

"sweets for the sweet"

"The time is out of joint"

 "every dog has its day"

"To be, or not to be"




e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Though it is true that cliches are often subject of derision that is not because they are less than apt, it is only because they have been used so often.

To me, this means that cliches are un-original, yes, but not necessarily empty or lacking poignance.

As far as Shakespeare is concerned, the Bard's plays are not seen as employing cliches but as inventing new turns of phrase, as has been pointed out, some of which have now become cliches.

Do we think less of Shakespeare's work because he wrote so memorably? I wouldn't say we do. Though maybe your point is more that his work does not seem new to us anymore because of its success and because it has so deeply entered into our speech.

belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

People often mix up cliches with tropes, so it's important to understand the difference between the two. A trope can be common between several stories; it is something that you can point to and say, "There's that, it was in [---] story!" A cliche is a trope that becomes overused. Neither are specifically unoriginal; many authors unconsciously echo their own favorite works, and many others have ideas that have been "done before," but they never read those works.

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare's works are full of proverbs, which might be viewed as clichés but which sum up -- usually in pithy ways -- commonly accepted wisdom.  Clichés often do much the same thing; phrases don't usually become clichés unless they seem true to great numbers of people. However, they can often indicate lazy thinking, especially if they are over-used.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't think that the use of cliches shows a lack of inventiveness or originality.  I would use the analogy of the wheel.  It's not as if the fact that we all use wheels means we're unoriginal.  What it means is that someone came up with a really good idea that serves a purpose and can't really be done better.  Some cliches are like that.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree that the use of cliché can be intentional.  You mentioned Shakespeare.  He used cliché to evoke an emotional response.  Many are emotional.  It also helps if your audience already knows what you are talking about.  Advertisers still use cliché in commercials.  Sometimes satirizing or playing with the cliché is also effective.

stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cliches have their place and purpose; there are times when they are the perfect way to summarize a situation or describe an event. However, cliches are very often over-used or misused as a byproduct of laziness or lack of being concerned about using specifically and completely applicable phrasing.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cliches should never be overused unless there is a specific reason to do so. However, sometimes a standard cliche is the perfect way to describe a situation or symbolize an element of the writing or dialogue.

twitters22 | Student

Saying something is cliche is really cliche.

dnguha | Student

 As a rule, cliche is a hackneyed or trite phrase that has been overused. Pope remarkes caustically on the use of hackneyed literary phrases:- "The reader's threatened ( not in vain) with sleep." But according to some scholars including M.H Abrams, some cliches are foreign phrases which are used as an arch or elegant equvalent for a common English term. As language is dynamic, new expressions with a view to giving vent to delicate emotions and sentiments are used in idiomotic forms which become cliches in course of time. Hence, innovetiveness or inventiveness is vivid in the usage of cliche. Some modern idiomotic phrases can be cited in this respect :-1. " Donkey's years" ( long time), 2. A wt blanket ( a person who kills joy). 3." to bite on granite " ( to waste energy), 4. "to break sweat" ( to work hard physically), 5. " By the rule of thumb" ( Rough practical experience),  6 " Swan song" ( last work of a poet or musician) do have ample innovative treatments.

wanderista | Student

A cliche is essentially a very over-used statement. Common cliches are as such:

I'm over the moon about this!

It's all in a day's work!

You sure do have a green thumb!

We have a one in a million chance of winning...


Cliches in my belief ruin a piece if they are used in considerable amounts. However, one or two can enhance a text, but overall, one should avoid them like the plague (another cliche, there...).

jmqualls | Student

It is an overused expression.  Using cliches shows a lack of originality and an inability to express oneself as an individual.  All speakers and writers need to express themselves as they are, not as someone else's parrot.

florine | Student

   The language used in Shakespeare's plays is, of course, particularly inventive and original since Shakespeare, like other contemporary playwrights was used to coining new words. Yet, even though his use of new words, compounds, neologisms was brilliant, some critics, using statstical computerized data have attempted to show that Shakespeare's vocabulary, however rich and inventive, was in some areas less rich than Ben Jonson's for example. But on the whole, I do agree with the comment in N°9: Shakespeare did "originate" many words that we associate with his plays.

    On the other hand, I disagree with what she suggests about the use of clichés. Shakespeare created characters that became myths. Falstaff is a tour de force (which means one of the most outstanding achievements within the playwright's works). And yet, according to Harry in Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff is "a trunk of humour". In this trunk, there are obviously existing clichés that are reworked and put in perspective in Shakespeare's play. Shakespeare's language is inspired by other works which were published before Henry IV. I am referring to Thomas Hartman's Life of vagabonds and its depiction of the unpalatable mores and picturesque and colourful language and also, in all likelihood Greene's pamphlet entitled Coney-catching and other such writings...

florine | Student

            The language in Shakespeare's plays is well-known for being extraordinarily inventive and new words were coined that were actually Shakespeare's neologisms (compounds, for example). Yet, some of the modern criticism now pretends that Shakespeare's vocabulary, that used to be thought so highly of (cf. Alfred Hart's substantial article entitled The Growth of Shakespeare's Vocabulary) is not so rich as one supposed in the past. Innovative areas in research through the use of statistical computerized data may have shown that in some fields, Ben Jonson may have been more inventive, using more new words... but of course, Shakespeare's plays are on the whole, more numerous and longer, so, although it's a taboo, it's still quite difficult, I think to compare Skakespearian and non Shakespearian plays.

         On the other hand,  Shakespeare has created myths, mythical characters like Falstaff, whose creation is most certainly a tour de force (meaning the most outstanding instance of the playwright's achievement). In Henry IV, Falstaff is "a trunk full of humour". Shakespeare's Falstaff originality lies in the fact that he is both central and periphereal. The language he uses is that of the dubious world of rogues. It was inspired by works that had been published previously: Thomas Hartman's depiction of the life of vagabonds and thieves and Greene's pamphlet (Coney-catching, I think). The existing clichés were subverted.