It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés by Orin Hargraves - review by Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

Words Fail Me

It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés


Oxford University Press 229pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

Towards the end of this obsessional work, Orin Hargraves wonders, yet again, about clichés: ‘Why do writers continue to use them? What genuinely motivates the cliché, when there is nearly always an alternative that, if it is not a cliché, is ipso facto more original and probably a better expression of the idea at hand?’ Such a question brings to mind a character in Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day who says: ‘People think that rubbish journalism is produced by men of discrimination who are vaguely ashamed of truckling to the lowest taste. But it’s not. It’s produced by people doing their best work.’

I doubt that an audience today would laugh as fulsomely at this line as it did almost forty years ago, when the tabloidisation of everything was unthought of. Now it has been achieved: broadsheet newspapers, the professions, the American presidency – all are demeaned. This ostrogothic cheapening, of which the ubiquity of the cliché is a symptom, is ascribable to, among other things, boastful pride in national and regional identity, the pretence of elites that they are not elite and that they are instead what the dangerous lout Trump calls ‘people persons’, a fetish for bogus informality, the elevation of the spiv to the position of ‘role supermodel’, the rise of PR, the triumph of accessibility, the legitimisation of bullying, the growth of ‘soft’ slavery, and so on, ad vomitum.

Clichés are off-the-peg signals, the linguistic badges that characterise and advertise this dismal order. They are paltry constructions that convey paltry thoughts, though ‘thoughts’ is not the word for the utterly conventionalised, usually mendacious, sometimes criminal formulae spouted by business ‘leaders’, God-botherers, pundits and politicians – all people

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