Clichès make up a majority of our speech from day to day. We cast about expressions looking for meaning amidst these recurrent phrases. Take a look at your last essay from high school or college and see how prevalent these “stereotypes” are in our speech and writing.

Even Homer partakes in this convention:

“Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel / when they catch sight of land… their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy as they plant their feet on solid ground again, spared a deadly fate.”

Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope, from ‘The Odyssey’

Notice the amount of imagery that does well to paint visuals in the listener’s mind. “Warm as joy”, “catch sight of”, “on solid ground”, “shipwrecked sailors”.

Poets and orators coined so many phrases we still use today because our brain needs shortcuts to make speech easier. *I can write, “read between the lines to see the truth that only time will tell how every cloud has a silver lining“, without much imagination or effort because of how familiar with these cliches we have become

(*While this isn’t the most powerful sentence written, it shows how easy it is to write using clichès- I count 3 words of originality).

Let’s look at origins. The phrase “full circle” was created by the progenitor of 1700 words in the English language, William Shakespeare. The reason Shakespeare coined a phrase like this could have been rooted in its “insidious memorability.” Plays and poems of the day were recited orally, and without notes. Having to memorize copious amounts of lines for scenes leads to the necessary evil of creating highly memorable “catch phrases” (or clichès) to insert into a script.

This is not a bad thing- to the contrary, it frees our mind up for problem solving or other kinds of creative thinking- but it is something we need to recognize. Language exists to create relationship.

As we drift farther out from our roots in classical education, into a world of digital connection and untempered social skills, we need to be conscious of how our words deepen or shallow relationships. We can reclaim language and begin to plant a trellis of intentionality.

Speaking words in a vacuum does nothing; you must garden with your words. You must live in the flower bed if you want to grow something there.

Redeeming How We Talk, AJ Swoboda and Ken Wytsma

timely article // the Chicago Tribune on COVID-19 philology

previous read // but, so, i mean, as far as

Author: Ben Fridge

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