Clichés and Overused Metaphors

We read and hear clichés and overused metaphors all the time, in books, movies and in our own daily speech. We use them because they help paint a more vivid picture for readers, movie-goers and listeners.

However, clichés and overused metaphors in writing can dull the impact of a passage.

This week’s blog focuses on clichés and overused metaphors and their origins. Some of these also relate to idioms, which we covered last year (see https://editors4you.com.au/a-penny-for-your-thoughts-and-other-idioms/).

Clichés and Overused Metaphors: What’s a cliché?

The word cliché originates from the French word clicher, meaning ‘to stereotype’. A cliché is an overused idea or phrase. It becomes stale.

Let’s look at some common clichés and their origins.

Bite the bullet

Meaning to accept and endure impending hardships, this saying dates back to the English novelist Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 novel The Light That Failed. It’s speculated that the saying originates from the historic act of having dental patients bite down on a bullet during procedures. Oh, the good old days before anaesthetic. Ouch.

Turn a blind eye

This saying means to knowingly refuse to acknowledge a truthful reality. Although he might not have been the first to use it, Admiral Horatio Nelson is often credited for the saying. During the naval battle of Copenhagen in 1801, he’s said to have put his telescope to his blind right eye so he wouldn’t be able to see a disengage signal, thus ‘turning a blind eye’.

Paint the town red

This cliché, meaning to have a jolly good time, dates back to 1837, when the Marquis of Waterford and a group of friends supposedly vandalised the town of Melton Mowbray during a drunken night out. Seemingly, they broke windows, pulled off doorknockers and painted several structures in the town with red paint – hence, paint the town red.

red building in Europe for blog clichés and overused metaphors
Clichés and overused metaphors: paint the town red

By and large

This cliché is said to have originated at sea, dating back to the 16th century. ‘Large’ meant a ship sailing with the wind behind it, while ‘by’ meant a ship sailing towards or into the wind. This resulted in ‘by and large’ meaning to sail in all directions. Today, it’s used to mean ‘taking everything into consideration’.

Give the cold shoulder

Meaning to ignore someone or be unwelcoming, this saying dates back to the 1800s. When particular guests weren’t welcome, they were served cold meat – often the shoulder – a polite way of bidding them farewell.

Now, let’s take a look at overused metaphors.

What are Metaphors?

A metaphor is a phrase that makes a comparison that isn’t literal and is often symbolic. It often says that something is something else. A famous example is Shakespeare’s line All the world’s a stage (in As You Like It). This is a metaphor, as the world is not literally a stage.

The word metaphor dates back to the 15th century. There are different types of metaphors, including implied, sustained, mixed and dead.

  • Implied metaphors are subtle and indirect.
  • Sustained (or extended) metaphors are repeated throughout multiple sentences.
  • Mixed metaphors are a combination of different metaphors.
  • Dead metaphors are clichés – they’ve been used so often they’ve lost their impact.

Let’s look at some common overused metaphors and their origins.

Life is a journey

Meaning life is full of adventures, friendships, hardships and so on, this metaphor was first used in the 1920s. It is often wrongly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, although the exact origin hasn’t yet been traced.

Love is a battlefield

This metaphor means that love has its ups and downs. It became a popular saying after the release of Pat Benatar’s 1983 song Love is a Battlefield.

Laughter is the best medicine

This means that humour will help improve a situation or one’s mood. It can be traced back to the Bible. While there are various translations of the saying, the one used in the World English Bible is ‘A cheerful heart makes good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.’

young children laughing for blog Clichés and overused metaphors
Clichés and overused metaphors: laughter is the best medicine

Time is money

Meaning to use one’s time wisely to make money, this metaphor originates with Benjamin Franklin. The saying comes from his 1748 essay Advice to a Young Tradesman.

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Although it may be tempting to use them, try to avoid using clichés and dead (overused) metaphors in your writing.

An exception, where you could use them to perhaps comical effect, is in fiction dialogue to indicate the particular quirks of a specific character.


Credit for preparing this blog to my current intern from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Hannah Daylight.

Next blog

In our next blog, we will focus on alternatives to these and other common clichés and overused metaphors, with examples.

Acknowledgments

Andrews, E 2018, 10 Common Sayings With Historical Originshttps://www.history.com/news/10-common-sayings-with-historical-origins  

Dictionary.com 2020, Metaphorhttps://www.dictionary.com/browse/metaphor  

Grammarly 2015, 14 Expressions with Origins that You Would Never Have Guessedhttps://www.grammarly.com/blog/14-expressions-with-crazy-origins-that-you-would-never-have-guessed/  

Lepki, L 2019, The Internet’s Best List of Clichéshttps://prowritingaid.com/art/21/List-of-Clich%C3%A9s.aspx  

Literary Devices 2020, 200 Short and Sweet Metaphor Exampleshttps://literarydevices.net/a-huge-list-of-short-metaphor-examples/ 

Macquarie Dictionary 2020, https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/features/word/search/?search_word_type=Dictionary&word=paint+the+town+red 

Quote Investigator 2020, Life Is a Journey, Not a Destinationhttps://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/08/31/life-journey/

Quote Investigator 2020, Time is money. Benjamin Franklin? https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/14/time-is-money/

The Idioms 2020, Laughter is the best medicinehttps://www.theidioms.com/laughter-is-the-best-medicine/

Underwood, Alice E.M. 2017, Metaphorshttps://www.grammarly.com/blog/metaphor/


Wikipedia 2020, Clichéhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clich%C3%A9 

IMAGES

Red building photo by Artem Saranin from Pexels

Black and white photo Pixabay

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