Let me begin by paying tribute to the Unimaginative Man without whose clichés words would have only one-the correct-meaning. (This is at least what my professor of linguistics in Brussels taught us: There are no synonyms; every word has a distinct meaning.) Picture yourself in a world without the Unimaginative Man: History would come to a halt because nobody would be fooled by slogans (reinforced clichés), nobody would have illusions about a “radiant tomorrow,” nobody would believe in universal disarmament. Without the Unimaginative Man nobody would be a consumer of sonorous programs and projects. The United Nations would lose its status as the “best hope of mankind”; democracy would no longer be “the best of all bad systems”; “human rights” world not be the thing to which “everybody is entitled.” Such expressions as “education for leadership,” “dialogue,” “dramatic reduction of automobile prices,” “world peace,” and “judgmental” would vanish. Nine-tenths of mankind would be left speechless.
It is also the Unimaginative Man who shakes grammar out of its structure and into unisex: he/she, him/her, his/hers-gems which compel certain Churches to drop “Our Father” in favor of “Our Parent.” Clichés come in many species and are ,spawned by government, business, the universities, the press: words like “chairperson,” “role model,” and “excellence in education,” or extended clichés like “bishops’ pastoral letters on war and peace” and “the people’s right to know” (the journalists’ fig leaf behind which untruth, half-truth, and obscenity are comfortably accommodated).
Few people have engaged so far in composing an anatomy of stereotypes. Flaubert’s compendium of idées reçues had merely the effect of turning a promising book, Bouvard et Pécuchet, into a monument of monotony and platitudes. But another Frenchman, Jean Cocteau, came within inches of identifying the fountainhead of clichés when be declared: “The trouble with the modern world is that stupidity has begun to think.” I know of no better anti-cliché.
The fact is, at any rate, that all languages erode (like the nations and empires which use them) because people at their decline labor under the impression that words are no longer strong and expressive enough to mean what he/she wants to say. People are right: we now say, at the drop of a hat, “terrible,” “frightening,” “fantastic,” “formidable”—all bona fide ex-words which used to mean something precise, but the meanings of which have liquefied by overuse and misuse. “Revolutionary,” “dramatic,” “charming,” “nice” used to be descriptive terms, then became superlatives, and now they are practically meaningless. The end has arrived with television, which consumes words as if they were paper napkins, and reduces everything, from religion to detergent, to the quick image and the stultifying repetition of verbal labels. The obsessive multiplication of words, like the obsessive multiplication of pictures, induces either violence or boredom. It flattens speech as it flattens the world.
The cliché is the letter- or sound-combination which turns the logos into logorrhea, while saving us the effort of thinking and imagining. Let me illustrate. Through constant use, “human rights” elicits nowadays a Pavlovian effect; it prompts a certain violent attitude. The content has evaporated long ago, now that it is applied to people smoking in the elevator, to Soviet troops exterminating Afghani peasants, or to Pilate who had Jesus crucified. The nonsmoker, the gulag inmate, Jesus Christ had their “human rights violated.” Democracy, dialogue, pluralism, socialism, racism, peace—all have the same effect: They prompt salivation. They could be grammatically classified—if grammar were still taught as it used to be in reactionary days (another cliché)—as interjections because they have become mere signs of anger, pleasure, fright, or surprise.
The cliché is a product of language in a state of decomposition. But its function is also further to insensitize the speaker before the beauty, expressiveness, the richness of that greatest of all divine inventions, language. (God commanded Adam to name animals, plants, things.) My students do not speak, they “communicate”; they take no grammar or foreign languages but “communication skills,” that is, anything from word processing to sensitivity train ing. They have turned from man to mechanism, but since man is not a machine and can never acquire its precision, all they manage is incoherence. As language deteriorates to cliché and the vocabulary dwindles to a few dozen words, intelligence becomes atrophied, and with it the other superior faculties: the sense of beauty, discrimination, taste, manners.
The question of manners leads us to a related area. We hear the argument that formulaic behavior and formulaic language ought to be repudiated together as shackles on freedom. Another cliché. What I single out for criticism in this article are not consecrated formulas of social intercourse; without them—gestures and phrases—we would sink into barbarism, since they are ornaments of social existence like paintings and tapestry on apartment walls or flowers in a garden. They are repetitive the way religious rites or musical motives are repetitive; they are linked to ceremony and enhance our daily life. We identify others by a number of outward and verbal signs: style of speech and clothing, use of words, gestures, facial expressions and polite phrases, an easy or boorish bearing in company. The difference between social rituals and verbal clichés is that the first points to an awareness of higher obligations (tradition, respect, the recognition of age, status, or achievement), while the second points downward, to something inferior (absence of mental effort, lack of imagination).
All this suggests that societies without an elite are the most likely to indulge in clichés, for lack of a model to imitate. The relaxation of social ties may induce comfort able living—until the day arrives when indolence lays bare the brutal impulses. What is missing in such societies is the observance of forms, awareness of differences in the social milieu, articulateness in speech and conduct. When none of these matter, there remains only a uniform and mechanical intercourse based upon contractual relationships. It becomes necessary to fall back on slogans. Symbolically, at least, the abolition of college dress codes in the early 60’s paved the way for campus revolution.
These considerations do not exhaust the world of clichés. The latter may also serve as a means of defense, a carapace behind which man may find a hiding place from aggression. Under Communist regimes, polite phrases and social ritual, as well as originality of thinking and imagery, must actually be camouflaged because these things are signs of a better class-origin or an independent mind. Official slogans serve as a certificate of good conduct, a proof of loyalty, or lack of originality. In Stalin’s time, even articles on dentistry or car repair contained obligatory references to the “beloved leader.” But this was part of a moral battle and national resistance, since an exaggerated use of clichés could also be interpreted as mockery and caricature.
Open societies are not exempt from quasi-compulsory clichés, only it is not the Party but an anonymously pressuring—society which enforces verbal conformity. In America today there is no law that says we have to be familiar with television programs, pop singers, fashionable columnists, commentators, and commercials, but ignorance leads to ostracism which weaker characters may not resist. On the other hand, a refusal to melt when the trumpets of democracy, human rights, or the free market are sounded may bring penalties. I know of companies where job-candidates are tested for the “positive” words they use.
Let us be fair. A community of human beings cannot be relentlessly at its articulate and original best. Many clichés are bridges between otherwise embarrassing moments, ways out of unfamiliar situations, camouflages of distraction or indifference. We possess an arsenal of words which we want to have no meaning. “How are you?” “I am sorry.” “It is nice” all are necessary formulas rather than articulate speech.
The cliché becomes offensive when it replaces judgment, especially on occasions when originality and insight were expected. Cliché may be amusing coming from a washerwoman-we then call them popular wisdom-but not from a philosopher, whom we must then call a washerwoman. Above alt the cliche is exasperating; it is always an expectation followed by a letdown. Whenever I am confronted with one, it is as if I had to climb a Himalaya to demonstrate his laziness to the cliché-user. It is easier to leave the room.