By Dr Oliver Tearle
The printing press is one of the great inventions of the last millennium. It revolutionised how many people could read and own books, led to an explosion in the sheer number of books in the world, and helped to spread the word (quite literally) of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
The printing press also gave us two now ubiquitous terms, one of which is cliché. But what is a cliché and what are some good synonyms for this word? How can one avoid being clichéd or repetitive when writing about clichés? Let’s take a closer look at some of the popular cliché synonyms …
Synonyms for the word ‘cliché’
The printing press gave us two now ubiquitous terms: cliché and STEREOTYPE.
The first is derived from the clicking sound made in printing, where molten metal was struck to make a cast, or block of prepared text; cliché, from the French for ‘click’, was thus an example of onomatopoeia, where the sound of the word mirrors the noise it describes. The word thus came to mean a phrase that was frequently used, much as the ‘cliché’ block of metal in printing was frequently used for stock phrases which recurred in numerous texts.
As for stereotype, this was a solid block of text that was pressed into molten type-metal. Stereotype literally means ‘solid type’. The word was first used in English writing in 1800, but by the middle of the nineteenth century the term stereotype was being applied to frequently used phrases or formulas: in other words, things repeated without being changed.
It was the eighteenth-century Irish novelist Laurence Sterne, the author of the long shaggy-dog story Tristram Shandy, who appears to have been the first to use the word PLATITUDE, in a letter of 1762: ‘The ground work of my ennui is more to the eternal platitude of the French characters – little variety, no originality in it at all – than to any other cause.’
When Sterne used it, platitude meant ‘the quality of dullness of banality’ (in speech or writing), but by 1815, according to the OED, the word had taken on the more familiar meaning of a dull, trivial, or commonplace statement – or, if you will, a cliché.
HACKNEYED is a common adjective used for clichés: it was originally applied to old and overworked horses. In London, before motorised transport, a common way of getting about was in the old equivalent of a black cab: a Hackney carriage, essentially a form of horse-and-cart. Using a horse for general-purpose riding over vast distances like this would soon wear down an animal, until it was old and decrepit, and so the term hackneyed came to be applied to a phrase that had been rendered trite or commonplace through familiarity or overuse.
And COMMONPLACE is itself another useful synonym for cliché: the word can be both an adjective (e.g., ‘a commonplace occurrence’) and a noun. When used as a noun, it started off with a more neutral and even positive meaning: a commonplace was a statement or passage of text that could serve as the basis for further discussion, or could even describe the theme of a sermon.
However, even in the sixteenth century, the more familiar meaning of commonplace had emerged, namely a statement or saying that is trite or overly familiar – in other words, a BANALITY (a trite, trivial, or commonplace statement or thing) or a TRUISM.
Truism itself is a curious word, in that although it’s had the same single meaning for over three centuries, that single meaning itself branches out into two slightly different senses. A truism is a self-evident truth, a statement whose truth is so obvious that it doesn’t require or deserve any discussion. And that being the case, merely uttering a truism is to offer something that doesn’t need to be said, because its truth is so obvious. So one can see how this word can function as a (near-)synonym for cliché.
The same can be said of MAXIM: another term for a self-evident proposition. If it’s that self-evident and apparent to everyone, then it’s probably also a cliché!
As Christopher Ricks observed in an essay on cliché (included in his The Force of Poetry), it’s hard to talk about clichés without uttering a few yourself. And some of the most familiar synonyms for cliché, or phrases applied to the cliché, are themselves now somewhat MOTH-EATEN or WELL-WORN, such as OLD CHESTNUT. This last has been around since at least 1883, when it was recorded in Iowa – and it’s still going strong.
Antonyms for the word ‘cliché’
Some useful antonyms for the cliché include UNHACKNEYED or UNCLICHÉD, but there can be something clunky and inelegant about reaching for these longer un- formations when trying to convey an opposite.
UNCONVENTIONAL and UNUSUAL are in more common use so may strike the eye or ear as less awkward, but if you’re looking for more positive antonyms for the cliché, adjectives such as INNOVATIVE, ORIGINAL, and STRIKING may capture the meaning you’re after.