Cricket Uncut

A group blog run by professional cricket writers from across the world

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Cliches and common usages

My colleague and friend, Chandrahas Choudhury, a fine writer who shuns cliches, has a grouse with my series on Cricketing Cliches. In an email to me, he writes:
I think you should make a sharper distinction between cliches on the one hand and commonly used expressions on the other. For instance you cite as cliches, in one post, the two expressions "on a knife's edge" and "having it all their way". If one understands a cliche as a trite or hackneyed idea or characterization, one immediately sees why the first phrase is a cliche. It must be noted that "on a knife's edge" is actually an excellent characterization of a situation that is so delicately balanced that it rests - and here we are asked to make a mental picture - as if one a knife's edge. But through repetition and overuse the expression has become what one calls a 'dead metaphor' - it no longer stimulates us to make a mental
picture through which we understand how tense the situation is, and the writer would be better off thinking of some other phrase. The same applies for phrases like "taking the bull by the horns". In general, the more metaphorical the phrase, the more likely it is to become deadened - and thereby give us the sense of being trite - by use.

"Having it all their way," by contrast, is to my mind merely a commonly used expression. If a team really is running away with the game, then I think this is a phrase that expresses the situation quite accurately; and if I were to write about ten games in a row, and all ten games were one-way affairs, then I see no reason why I should not use this phrase every time with justification (of course, I would ideally not want to do so, for variety is the spice of language as it is of life). The same goes for "elegant cover-drive". A writer is perfectly entitled to call cover-drives 'elegant' as long as he does not believe that all cover-drives, just by virtue of being cover-drives, are somehow elegant. 'Elegant' is such a general phrase that one can often use it safely without really falling into error; as a parallel, we often say that 'it's a beautiful day', but are we using a cliched expression then?

Fair point, but I would argue that even a commonly used expression becomes a cliche with repeated use, especially in particular contexts. A cliche is essentially a lazy shorthand that a writer uses, whether it is metaphorical or a commonly used phrase. They deaden prose, and a writer should aim to describe everything he sees in a fresh manner. When he instead uses cliches, he does his readers a disservice.

Consider the "elegant cover-drive", for example. I have seen cover-drives by Michael Vaughan, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Yasir Hameed described in that manner. Now, while all the cover-drives in question were no doubt elegant, they were also different from each other. Surely the writer's duty is to convey that difference, rather than use a broad phrase that tells you nothing. "Elegant" is not a cliche by itself, but it becomes cliched usage in the context of a cover-drive. Every cover-drive deserves better.

Of course, in the course of a report where a writer has no space for detailed description, such shorthands are forgivable, if avoidable. "On a knife's edge", however, is inexcusable. On that, I agree with Chandrahas.
amit varma, 10:24 AM| email this to a friend | permalink | homepage