In the time it takes to read this sentence, 50 English instructors will write the word “cliché” in red ink in the margins of a student paper. The admonition to “Avoid clichés!” has almost become a cliché—as much a cliché as the word “cliché” itself. And since clichés are meanings that have lost some of their meaning, it might be time for a reminder of what they really mean.
The word “cliché” comes from the 19th century French printing industry. In the days of movable type, each letter or symbol was set on an individual metal block, with each word and sentence painstakingly arranged block by block. To save time, printers would combine commonly used phrases into large blocks called “stereotypes” or “clichés” (presumably after the sound they made being set: cliquer, “to click”). Eventually this expression was used so often to refer to common phrases that it became a word of its own—a word so commonly used that we’ve mostly forgotten its original meaning. Cliché became a cliché.
A cliché is a kind of dead metaphor. It’s a connection between different concepts that has become so prominent in our minds that we no longer have to associate it with those original concepts to understand its meaning. When you hear the word cliché, you don’t think of the French printer or steel slugs of type. It’s not visceral in the least. It just is what it is, and you know what it is. A cliché.
Seen this way, a cliché can be an amazing thing: It’s an original, useful concept that’s hard to imagine ever having lived without. It’s the birth of an individual idea, a new discrete unit of thought that’s become an inherent part of how we see the world, who we are. But there, too, is the rub: Now the concept has already been born, and it exists as a fully developed thing. There’s nowhere else for it to grow.
In neuroscience, Hebbian theory is summarized as, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” The more often a neural pathway between two concepts is fired, the easier it is for that pathway to fire the next time—which makes it fire more often, which makes it fire more easily, and so on, until that pathway is firing in the same pattern every time, at the drop of a hat, so to speak. The dominance of that pathway becomes a part of the architecture of the brain, and overwhelms the possibility for any new connections between those original concepts. This process is how an entire ant colony can find your puddle of spilled syrup, or how human highways and cities form.
Imagine two towns separated by countless miles of dense jungle. The townsfolk to the west think they’re alone in the universe. Until one day a brave adventurer hacks her way through the vegetation and miraculously discovers the town to the east. A new connection. When she returns home, she tells her friends of the wonders of the town to the east and the amazing sights she encountered along the way. And her friends, being young and adventurous themselves, want to see those wonders, too. They could, of course, hack their own paths east, but why bother, when a path has already been hacked?
As they travel, the larger group, by its very nature, widens the path, their footsteps trampling the earth. The wider path is more enticing, an easier trek, and those who were once disinclined to risk decide it’s worth the journey.
The path becomes wider still, now wide enough for a wagon. A well is dug halfway between the towns, so that the horses have water. The towns begin to trade goods, which means more wagons on the road. An entrepreneur opens an inn next to the well. Now the road is cobblestone. Now pavement. It’s still a scenic drive—look at the waterfalls, the flora, the fauna, but look from the road—which becomes a highway, four lanes, then six, then eight. Eventually the trip is a daily commute that the townsfolk make without a thought, a most convenient connection between east and west, and no one bothers to notice the scenery blurring by—they couldn’t get out and touch it if they wanted to, at the speed the traffic flows. They’re thankful for the road, it takes them efficiently from one town to the other, but they no longer experience the journey. They build a freeway wall. They listen to the radio while they drive. Nothing changes. The road is the road and it works.
Until another adventurer appears, a writer, who says, “Has anyone looked out there north of the road?”
The joy of reading is that we can follow. That we can grab an ax and smell the earth and feel the grass as the writer hacks ahead, stimulating new paths (and maybe, eventually, new clichés) through the jungles of our minds.