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D. Peculiar use of set expressions


In language studies there are two very clearly-marked tendencies that the student should never lose sight of, particularly when dealing with the problem of word-combination. They are 1) the analytical tendency, which seeks to dissever one component from another and 2) the synthetic tendency which seeks to integrate the parts of the combination into a stable unit.

These two tendencies are treated in different ways in lexicology and stylistics. In lexicology the parts of a stable lexical unit may be separated in order to make a scientific investigation of the character of the combination and to analyse the components. In stylistics we analyse the component parts in order to get at some communicative effect sought by the writer. It is this communicative effect and the means employed to achieve it that lie within the domain of stylistics.

The integrating tendency also is closely studied in the realm of lexicology, especially when linguistic scholars seek to fix what seems to be a stable word-combination and ascertain the degree of its stability, its variants and so on. The integrating tendency is also within the domain of stylistics, particularly when the word-combination has not yet formed itself as a lexical unit but is in the process of being so formed.

Here we are faced with the problem of what is called the cliché.


The Cliché


A cliché is generally defined as an expression that has become hackneyed and trite. As Random House Dictionary has it, " a cliché has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long over-use..."



1 Потебня А. А. Из записок по теории словесности. Харьков, 1905, с. 355.

2 See «Вопросы языкознания», 1953, № 1, с. 16.

This definition lacks one point that should be emphasized; that is, a cliché strives after originality, whereas it has lost the aesthetic generating power it once had. There is always a contradiction between what is aimed at and what is actually attained. Examples of real cliché s are 'rosy dreams of youth', 'the patter of little feet', 'deceptively simple'.

Definitions taken from various dictionaries show that cliché is a derogatory term and it is therefore necessary to avoid anything that may be called by that name. But the fact is that most of the widely recognized word-combinations which have been adopted by the language are unjustly classified as cliché s. The aversion for cliché s has gone so far that most of the lexical units based on simile (see p. 167) are branded as cliché s. In an interesting article entitled " Great Cliché Debate" published in the New York Times Magazinel we can read the pros and cons concerning cliché s. The article is revealing on one main point. It illustrates the fact that an uncertain or vague term will lead to various and even conflicting interpretations of the idea embodied in the term. What, indeed, do the words 'stereotyped', ‘hackneyed’, 'trite' convey to the mind? First of all they indicate that the phrase is in common use. Is this a demerit? Not at all. On the contrary: something common, habitual, devoid of novelty is the only admissible expression in some types of communications. In the article just mentioned one of the debaters objects to the phrase 'Jack-of-all-trades' and suggests that it should be " one who can turn his hand to any (or to many kinds of) work." His opponent naturally rejects the substitute on the grounds that 'Jack of all trades' may, as he says, have long ceased to be vivid or original, but his substitute never was. And it is fourteen words instead of four. " Determine to avoid cliché s at all costs and you are almost certain to be led into gobbledygook." 2

Debates of this kind proceed from a grossly mistaken notion that the term 'cliché ' is used to denote all stable word-combinations, whereas it was coined to denote word-combinations which have long lost their novelty and become trite, but which are used as if they were fresh and original and so have become irritating to people who are sensitive to the language they hear and read. What is familiar should not be given a derogatory label. On the contrary, if it has become familiar, that means it has won general recognition and by iteration has been accepted as a unit of the language.

But the process of being acknowledged as a unit of language is slow. It is next to impossible to foretell what may be accepted as a unit of the language and what may be rejected and cast away as being unfit, inappropriate, alien to the internal laws of the language, or failing to meet the demand of the language community for stable word-combinations to designate new notions. Hence the two conflicting ideas: language should always be fresh, vigorous and expressive, and, on the other hand, language, as a common tool for intercommunication, should make use



1 August 31, 1958.

2 Ibid.



of units that are easily understood and which require little or no effort to convey the idea and to grasp it.

R. D. Altick in his " Preface to Critical Reading" condemns every word sequence in which what follows can easily be predicted from what precedes.

" When does an expression become a cliché? There can be no definite answer, because what is trite to one person may still be fresh to another. But a great many expressions are universally understood to be so threadbare as to be useless except in the most casual discourse... A good practical test is this: If, when you are listening to a speaker, you can accurately anticipate what he is going to say next, he is pretty certainly using cliché s, otherwise he would be constantly surprising you." l

Then he gives examples, like We are gathered here to-day to mourn ('the untimely death') of our beloved leader...; Words are inadequate ('to express the grief that is in our hearts').

" Similarly when you read, " he goes on, " if one word almost inevitably invites another, if you can read half of the words and know pretty certainly what the other are, you are reading cliché s."

And then again come illustrations, like We watched the flames (‘licking’) at the side of the building. A pall (‘of smoke’) hung thick over the neighbourhood...; He heard a dull (‘thud’) which was followed by an ominous (‘silence’).2

This passage shows that the author has been led into the erroneous notion that everything that is predictable is a cliché. He is confusing useful word-combinations circulating in speech as members of the word-stock of the language with what claims to be genuine, original and vigorous. All word-combinations that do not surprise are labelled as cliché s. If we agree with such an understanding of the term, we must admit that the following stable and necessary word-combinations used in newspaper language must be viewed as cliché s: 'effective guarantees', 'immediate issues', 'the whip and carrot policy', 'statement of policy', 'to maintain some equilibrium between reliable sources', 'buffer zone', 'he laid it down equally clearly that...' and so on.

R. D. Altick thus denounces as cliché s such verb- and noun-phrases as 'to live to a ripe old age', 'to grow by leaps and bounds', 'to withstand the test of time', 'to let bygones be bygones', 'to be unable to see the wood for the trees', 'to upset the apple-cart', 'to have an ace up one's sleeve', And finally he rejects such word-combinations as 'the full flush of victory', 'the patter of rain', 'part and parcel', 'a diamond in the rough' and the like on the grounds that they have outlasted their freshness. 3

In his protest against hackneyed phrases, Altick has gone so far as to declare that people have adopted phrases like 'clock-work precision',



1 Altick, R. D. Preface to Critical Reading. Holt, N. Y., 1956, p. 100.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

'tight-lipped (or stony) silence', 'crushing defeat', 'bumper-to-bumper traffic', 'sky-rocketing costs' and the like"... as a way of evading their obligation to make their own language." 1

Of course, if instead of making use of the existing means of communication, i. e. the language of the community, people are to coin " their own language, " then Altick is right. But nobody would ever think such an idea either sound or reasonable. The set expressions of a language are 'part and parcel' of the vocabulary of the language and cannot be dispensed with by merely labelling them cliché s.

However, at every period in the development of a language, there appear strange combinations of words which arouse suspicion as to their meaning and connotation. Many of the new-born word-combinations in modern English, both in their American and British variants, have been made fun of because their meaning is still obscure, and therefore they are used rather loosely. Recently in the New York Times such cliché s as 'speaking realization', 'growing awareness', 'rising expectations', 'to think unthinkable thoughts' and others were wittily criticized by a journalist who showed that ordinary rank-and-file American people do not understand these new word-combinations, just as they fail to understand certain neologisms, as opt (= to make a choice), and revived words, as deem (= to consider, to believe to be) and others and reject them or use them wrongly.

But as history has proved, the protest of too-zealous purists often fails to bar the way to all kinds of innovations into standard English. Illustrative in this respect is the protest made by Byron in his " Don Juan":

"...'free to confess' —(whence comes this phrase? Is’t English? No—'tis only parliamentary)."

and also:

" A strange coincidence to use a phrase

By which such things are settled nowadays."


" The march of Science (How delightful these cliché s are!)..."


Byron, being very sensitive to the aesthetic aspect of his native language, could not help observing the triteness of the phrases he comments on, but at the same time he accepts them as ready-made units. Language has its strength and its weaknesses. A linguistic scholar must be equipped with methods of stylistic analysis to ascertain the writer's aim, the situation in which the communication takes place and possibly the impact on the reader, to decide whether or not a phrase is a cliché or " the right, word in the right place". If he does not take into consideration all the properties of the given word or word-combination, the intricacies of language units may become a trap for him.



1 Ibid.


Men-of-letters, if they are real artists, use the stock of expressive phrases contained in the language naturally and easily, and well-known phrases never produce the impression of being cliché s.


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