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A Social Use of Clichés: Rhetorical and Cultural Dimensions

Rhetorical and Cultural Dimensions—

Consider a proverb, for instance—
think of the endless variety of situations,
distinct in their particularities.  –Kenneth Burke

The prescriptive dictum: avoid trite and worn-out clichés is not only a cliché itself, but misses the point on why clichés are used in the first place.  Unlike a comma splice, or a rule on the use of the semi-colon, clichés might better be explained as a language register, as having both a rhetorical and social dimension.  Speaking in clichés is not the same as misspelling a word.  It is not that type of error at all.  Indeed, a more plausible reason for avoiding clichés in writing is that a cliché (as its French root cliquer suggests) transforms intended thoughts into mere sound.  To put it another way: the click or cliché substitutes for real thinking.  We may think we are thinking, but the reality is that we are just making sounds like a parrot.  We mimic speech.  You might say that when we use a cliché, we repeat an idea without thinking it through.  We mimic the form; we lack the substance.  The sound and fury may be there, but our words signify little or nothing. Perhaps, I could explain this strange and curious feature of language with a simple story.

Recently, several of us were sharing several pizzas over a lively and undirected conversation when one of our group, a native French-speaker, framed his argument this way:  That would suck you out of your socks!

“What do you mean?” we asked; he certainly had captured all of our attention.

Perhaps sensing a grammatical blunder, he tried again.  “I mean,” he said, “that would knock you out of your socks!”

“What do you mean?  Are you citing a French proverb?” we inquired.

He replied that he was not and that he had heard native English speakers say this often, or at least, something close to it.  We were confounded, but someone ventured a cautious guess.

“Do you mean that would knock your socks off?”

“Exactly,” he said, “That is it exactly!”

He may have had the words wrong, but he certainly had the meaning right, so right, in fact, that all of us laughed heartily.  His use of a recognized cliché immediately revealed that he was not a native speaker of English.  His accent said that as well.  After all, no native English speaker would ever have made the kind of error he had made.  And yet, his use of English clearly suggested a very complex

understanding of language use.  His attempt at an English cliché may have been a misstep, but he had not misread either the social or the rhetorical dimension of language.  He had used the words in the right way and in an appropriate setting.

Admittedly, he was accurate.  Somehow, he had understood an idiom that did not exist in French. French, of course, has its own idioms and clichés (as does every language), but knock your socks off is not what a French speaker says.  Our friend may not have known the exact formula in speaking the cliché, but he had come close.  All of us at the table were absolutely delighted by what he had said and by the freshness of it all. We may have been distracted by why he said it, but we were intrigued by the words he had chosen.

My friend’s attempt at a cliché over pizza later caused me to reflect even further. What is the relationship between words and meaning?  Why is it that some words create a certain meaning and others do not?  Why is it that some words hurt us while others soothe our pain?

Indeed, if we think about it— from a semantical perspective, there is little difference between suck you out of your socks and knock your socks off. In both instances, an action is being directed toward a subject; in both instances, socks are removed, and it matters little whether one is knocked out of his socks or pulled out of them.  The reason, however, that the one expression is a cliché and the other is not, may lay in a social context and word choice.  Knock your socks off is a recognized formula for a cliché and suck you out of your socks is not.  The French speaker had used an unfamiliar structure, but his rhetorical use of the cliché was quite accurate.  He had used the expression as a linguistic intensifier for surprise. In this case, the meaning was stronger than the words which had carried the meaning.

In future articles we will look again at the cliché and other linguistic phenomenon.  We will look at what the cliché might say about language as a communicative system.  We will explore how meaning is made by words, and how meaning can be just as easily distorted by words.  After all, we do not always mean what the words say.  Like a parrot, we utter sounds, but to paraphrase the Christ, “We know not what we do.” —James Sanders

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