I was on the phone to a friend when my son, Nick, heard me use the expression, ‘when the shit hits the fan’. Nick, who was six, shrieked with delight.
The phrase was novel to him and immediately evoked the vivid image intended by the words. He ran to his mum, begging to know how he could use the term.
“It’s very crude,” she said. “Try something else.”
“I dunno… Like, ‘when all hell breaks loose.’”
That didn’t do the trick for Nick. It didn’t cut the mustard. Hell breaking loose is hard to picture, and the phrase has no toilet humour.
Gives clichés a wide berth
As a pedantic former English teacher and journalist, I don’t like the shit/fan expression either (although I use it inadvertently in conversation). Not because I find it distasteful – although I do – but because it’s a cliché. As is “All hell broke loose.” And writers are supposed to avoid clichés. Or, when push comes to shove and the chips are down, to use them only sparingly.
Still, the episode with Nick made me think about why great phrases become clichés. And that’s because they are – when fresh – evocative, effective and, sometimes, funny.
But the potency of an image evaporates with common usage. How many people think of shit hitting a fan when they speak the words? But alternatives are often clichés too. Like all hell broke loose.
Push the envelope, go for a fresh image
Some clichés, mercifully, have a short shelf-life. Remember a few years back when journalists and politicians fell in love with a tissue of lies? And a raft of measures?
Far better is the recent phrase, ‘nails it’, meaning to make a point well and concisely. As in: “Mr … really nails it in this article.” But it has already become a cliché, spreading like a rash on social media.
Finding a new expression to say the same thing as a cliché, but with real impact, can be difficult. You have to push the envelope. You have to think outside the box. Try too hard, though, and the result might appear contrived or self-conscious.
Or simply too arresting: a clever new image might well distract the reader from your overall message. The only thing Nick took away from listening in to my phone conversation was the cliché. He didn’t stay to eavesdrop on the rest of my call.
Stun the retina, then kiss it
Yet original images enliven copy even if they’re a bit distracting. I still remember this brilliant line from a film review more than three decades ago: “Mad Max 2 first stuns the retina, then kisses it.” (Try something as smart in copywriting and it will help you sell stuff. It was picked up and used in the promotional poster for Mad Max 2 – and sold the film to me.)
Some 10 years later, I saw a book reviewer describing a character being “on the nursery slopes of middle age”. I was impressed, even if I did imagine the reviewer with a self-satisfied grin as he wrote it. A Google search shows that phrase has been used often since, although probably not enough to be a cliché. So it’s best avoided. Use a clever but uncommon image that’s not yours and you risk being accused of plagiarism.
To avoid crippling sanctions, be creative
So, is it ever ok to use clichés? At the end of the day I’d say yes, provided the cliché saves words and is innocuous enough not to draw unwanted attention to itself.
That’s why journalists so often use crippling before the word ‘sanctions’. It’s useful shorthand. Most alternatives – biting, tough, suffocating, stifling, draconian – are also clichés.
Copywriting should be a win-win profession
Because news agency reporters often have several deadlines a day, they are, understandably, the most prone to using clunky clichés – although sub-editors should catch the worst. Clock these in this randomly-chosen agency report from the Cannes Film Festival:
Writer-director Ida Panahandeh has made a splash with her film debut, landing in competition at the Cannes Film Festival for “Nahid,” a fraught portrait of the byzantine legal complications and social stigmas concerning divorce and remarriage in Iran… Sareh Bayat stars in the title role as a small-town divorcee who finds herself navigating a peculiar minefield known as “temporary marriage.”
Of course, it’s not just journalists that use clichés. All professions do it. Just listen to diplomats. Game-changer. Turning point. Zero-sum game. Win-win solution. It takes two to tango. You get the impression that diplomats play a lot of poker and hang out at night clubs.
So far, so clichéd
But copywriters are obliged to be more creative. We can’t afford to use stale or bland imagery. Those hiring our creative skills will be less forgiving than a newspaper sub-editor if our words don’t help sell things.
So if we use a cliché, we should do so inventively and for a purpose. Remember when riffs on so far, so good were popular among journalists? As in so far, so predictable, or so far, so dull. Inevitably, this trend was picked up and re-worked in adverts for sofas. As in ‘Sofa, so comfortable,’ and ‘Sofa, so relaxing’. But it’s now well past its sell-by date.
So, at the end of the day, beware the siren call of clichés. Or the shit will hit the fan.
Image credit: Tom Newby Photography