Why Cliches are Meaningless (So Stop Using Them)

There is a growing trend of what I like to think of as the outsourcing of thought – where our own thoughts are subservient to those deemed “superior authorities”. Part of this collective-mind-holiday comes from the Internet: our tool to disassociate ourselves from the process of thinking. The rest comes from expert culture, and what a friend called “The myth of the intellectual”: the idea that there are those – the intellectuals – who should think rationally, and the rest of us should not. But the worst outsourcing comes from everyday clichés that are  used to circumvent the thinking process. Phrases that, when used, prevent us from coming to our own, rational conclusions.

The best clichés are spoken of as “timeless”, and are told to children. And so goes Alice, down the rabbit hole. They are viewed as irrefutable and the epitome of ‘conventional wisdom’, and ‘timeless’ thought. At their worst, clichés are used to conclude arguments. Take, for example: “That’s just how the world works”; “You wouldn’t jump off a cliff if a friend did it”; “Actions speak louder than words”.

Used with abandon, clichés dismantle the thinking process. Instead of doing a cost/benefit analysis of a situation – a cliché or phrase is used to jump to a conclusion. If people presume “actions speak louder than words”, then they will not discuss things properly. (If “that’s just the way the world works”, then people will never go about changing the world). When we outsource our thinking to tired old cliches, we actually prevent and hinder ourselves from acting in one way or another.


The problem is that these clichés bear no relevance to us individually. They have only lasted BECAUSE they are so generic as to apply to anything. They are timelessly irrelevant. Hence, it makes no sense to apply them to our lives.

Words are meant to portray our individual meaning: how we personally see the world; what we personally think. But clichés obfuscate individual meaning in favour of generalities, and in the process we lose the entire purpose of communication. Over a prolonged period of time, clichés become meaningless.

George Orwell railed against this loss of meaning in his seminal “Politics and the English Language”. He quotes phrases like “Rift within the lute”, and questions “what is a rift?” He attacks the staccato phrases that “choke” the writing of modern day academics: phrases like “having regard to”, “the fact that” and “a development to be expected in the near future”. He rationalizes that language, is about conveying an idea.


Instead of letting language dictate our thoughts, we should let our thoughts dictate our language. Unless and until we do so, we will remain subservient to the thinking of yesterday. But the problem, ultimately, is that clichés are a very poor guide for what decision to make. Put simply, they can be contrasted against each other endlessly.


Actions speak louder than words;             The pen is mightier than the sword

The ends justify the means; It’s not the gift but the thought that counts

All in a day’s work;            All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

The best laid plans of mice and men;            Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

Boys will be boys;            Noun will be noun

Love is blind;                        Beauty is a fading flower

Look at the bigger picture;            The devil is in the details

Do what it takes; I tried and I failed, the lesson is to never try

Don’t rock the boat; Don’t jump off a cliff if your friends jump off a cliff

Less is more; More is more

A half baked idea;            Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good

Following in his footsteps; Don’t jump off a cliff if your friends jump off a cliff

Don’t get your knickers in a knot; Talk until you are blue in the face

The grass is always greener;            home is where the heart is


A 19th Century magazine once had common clichés and metaphors depicted in pictures. So there was a woman, literally falling flat on her face. A man was depicted with teeth as daggers. A woman was shown jumping off a cliff after a friend. These are real images, but we use them so often that we never picture the image anymore. They have become ‘words’ in their own right: capturing a meaning, but without the root of that meaning understood. Just as nobody, derives from the common “no” and “body” (meaning there is literally not a body there), so too phrases have lost their hidden meaning over time.

The effect is that we use phrases without actually understanding what they mean, to try and convey our own personal meaning. Obviously this results in gibble gabble. Why not just use your own words?