What precisely is a cliché? And is it really the ‘bad guy of the English language’? Or is that just a vexed question? As even bad guys have their defendants and McArthur in The Oxford Companion to the English Language reminds us that the general dislike of the cliché is founded on a desire for originality of expression.
What do phrases such as fly off the handle (p.67), in flagrante delicto (p.93) and let the cat out of the bag (p.114) actually mean? And what are their origins in this mother tongue of ours? Betty Kirkpatrick presents a fascinating insight into over 1300 of our most hackneyed phrases – idiom clichés, catchphrases, similes, proverb clichés, vogue expressions and metaphors – along with their meanings, timescales and origins.
Kirkpatrick begins by a thoughtful discussion on the meaning of the word ‘cliché’; coming from the French word ‘clicer’ (to stereotype), the word was originally used in printing. She concludes that they do not immediately fit into any immediate distinctive linguistic category. With each cliché alphabetically listed Kirkpatrick also provides the history of use over time for each with reference to a wide variety of sources including the Bible, Shakespeare and other works of literature.
‘pride and joy’ (p.150) a hackneyed phrase used to refer to someone or something of which one is very proud, as Their grandson is their pride and joy…The expression comes from a poem, Rokeby (1813) written by Walter Scott in which it was used to describe children. As a cliché it is still commonly used.
‘a hair of the dog’ (p.82) is a hackneyed phrase used to refer to an alcoholic drink taken as a supposed cure for a hangover, although it is just as likely to prolong the said hangover. It is a common cliché today, as ‘How about a hair of dog? You look absolutely terrible’. It appeared in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs (1546) and has its origin in an old remedy for a dogbite which consisted of burning the hair of a dog and placing it on the bite.
‘warts and all’ (p. 194) is an illusion cliché to the instructions given by Oliver Cromwell to Sir Peter Lely when he was painting his portrait that the artist should make him appear as he really was, including any imperfections, such as warts ‘I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will not pay a farthing for it.’ The expression, which is widespread in modern times, means despite any shortcomings or drawbacks, as ‘I hope she is going to marry him warts and all and not try to change him’.
The book’s drawbacks are that it may lack practical application as clichés are alphabetically listed and not thematically cross-referenced. It also lacks etymological and philological explanations. However Kirkpatrick explains this in her introduction, claiming that subject matter indexing would have resulted in ‘over-fragmentation of the book’. Nevertheless the book is a must for all language buffs and linguists interested in the development and usage of English and those who speak it – as an Arabic proverb suggests, ‘you don’t understand a people until you understand their clichés’. A worthwhile addition to the wordsmith’s shelf.