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Journalism is produced at speed, and the writer reaching for an expression in a hurry is like a short-order cook going to the shelf for the most familiar ingredients. Journalism is also highly formulaic—write one obituary, and you can write a thousand just like it. That makes journalistic writing a tremendous repository of cliches.

So Orin Hargraves found in writing It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches (Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $24.95). But Mr. Hargraves is no mere carper. A lexicographer and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America, he brings a scholar's sharp eye (and uncommonly clear prose) to the phenomenon of the cliche.

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The origin of cliches is clear: "Cliché–ridden prose usually gives the impression of being spoken or written thoughtlessly, if not hastily, and it is hard to find fault with the argument that a great deal of cliché results from language users not taking particular care about what they say. Thus, cliché finds its way to expression from language users taking the path of least resistance—where the resistance is to the effort that would be required to consult the intellect for a more original or apt way of expressing an idea."

Recognizing our inherent subjectivity (we damn whatever happens to irritate us), he turned to the Oxford English Corpus to identify the stock phrases that appear in great enough frequency to qualify as cliches. He also differentiates cliches from idioms (shed light on) and formulas (null and void) that are common but clear and useful. His working principle is that "misuse, or at least infelicitous use, is very often the culprit that contributes to the perception of both overuse and ineffectiveness of a given form of words."

Let's turn to some representative specimens to see how his analysis the combination of overuse and ineffectiveness holds up.

the elephant in the room 

"Counting only elephants people talk about in specific locations, elephants in rooms outnumber elephants in Africa by nearly twenty to one, a rather shocking statistic for this cliché that only gained currency in the late twentieth century. The elephant in the room presents an apt image of a thing everyone can't help being aware of. At present the usage of the cliché is still increasing and writers seem eager for opportunities to trot it out, sometimes in circumstances that don't really require an elephant. It works best to characterize a straightforward situation in which something that ought to be talked about is being ignored. …"

the vast/overwhelming majority

"Taken together, they are a juggernaut of hyperbole for writers who find something wanting in a humble word like most. Vast majority is many times more frequent than overwhelming majority and is in fact one of the most frequent clichés noted in this book. Its intention is usually to diminish or marginalize a minority. The same is true for overwhelming majority, which is used even when nothing is obviously overwhelmed. Both clichés can usually be replaced with most with no damage to meaning."

stay the course

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"Users of this cliché seem to think it will impart a notion loftier than 'persist' but its extreme frequency mitigates against this.* In many cases there is no path or direction obvious that corresponds to the notion of 'course,' which further weakens the effect."

close proximity 

"Proximity means 'nearness' so it is extraordinary that in some genres of writing is it accompanied by close nearly half the time. Scientific writing … often discusses multiple proximities, making the use of close or its inflections sensible, but this is not usually the case in journalism, where the pair of words are simply riveted together."

It is not Mr. Hargraves's intention to exterminate cliches, which would in any case be impossible. They are handy. They can help the reader by establishing a degree of familiarity as unfamiliar ideas or being introduced. Moreover, he says, you would not want a writer to be completely original in every expression, any more than you would want to patronize a chef whose every dish is startlingly unfamiliar. And in journalistic writing, "cliché is a substantial part of the code of journalism, and consumers of journalism accept conventional and stereotyped ways of expressing ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously, as part of the diet."

Even granting that last point, it should be possible to reduce to proportion of junk food being served up. A responsible writer will want to lay hands on Mr. Hargraves's thoughtful and useful book to gauge which familiar turns of phrase might be better abandoned, and to limit others to contexts in which they would be genuinely apposite, rather than display oneself before the public riding some spavined trope.

 

*I think that Mr. Hargraves might have intended militates here.  But I am reading from an uncorrected proof.

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