Life after 50: Been there, said that: Clichés may be overused but ring true


When it comes to language, clichés are so yesteryear. They’re the convenient fast food of communication; something to fall back on when we are trying to make a point. They pop out of our mouths like bread in a toaster—ready to serve and digest with little imagination.

Yet, the reason we keep going back to them is that they continue to work well to describe how we feel, how we should behave, how we mark time, life’s stages, our emotions, love, and descriptions of others.

Even the dictionary makes them sound like a pariah, saying, they represent a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

Clichés come from movies, TV shows, books, magazines, and even the Internet. How many times have you said, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” which is the first line of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, which so many of us probably read in high school. Maybe, it wasn’t a cliché when Dickens wrote it, but its use has become one over time.

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Or “You’ve got mail!” is a phrase robotically delivered in the early years of AOL when a user clicked in. It even became the title of a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy movie. Another popular one is from The Godfather, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” or from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”

When Joe Biden met with Queen Elizabeth pre-Covid-19, a CNN news anchor talked about the history between the two and said the Queen never forgets. “She has a memory like an elephant.”

And here are so many others that we use in everyday parlance, perhaps, because we know the person we’re talking or emailing with will instantly get it. We don’t have to go into any long-winded explanation.

Yes, we’d love to be more original but why reinvent the wheel when there’s already a catchy phrase.

  • Your grandson doesn’t greet you in the morning with a big hello like he usually does. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” you say. If he gives you the silent treatment, you might blurt out, “Cat got your tongue?”
  • You have a fight with your spouse or partner, then you might agree to “Kiss and make up.” Or the fight is over something foolish like they forgot to buy vanilla you need to make a cake. You think: “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” You figure out an alternative or walk to the corner market and buy it yourself.
  • Your mother falls, breaks a hip and complains about becoming, “As old as the hills.” Or she might complain, “Old age isn’t for sissies.”
  • Your friend is always late. You sit there reading emails on your phone to “pass the time.” And when she arrives 45 minutes late, you think, “What a waste of time!” And if you plan to confront her but know you might get into a disagreement, you think “the heck with it” or, “why not” for, “All is fair in love and war.” She might respond, “Sorry, I’m late but don’t get your panties in a bunch (or wad).” Will you remain friends? “Only time will tell.”
  • And not too long ago when Margaret was trying to arrange a convenient time for a group Zoom, someone said to her, “Thanks. Trying to arrange this is like herding cats.” Why are cats part of so many clichés, even though dogs make it into clichés, too, such as “It’s raining cats and dogs!

Margaret’s mother, who was a voracious reader and a good writer, was infuriating when she used clichés, especially when disciplining her kids. “Children should be seen and not heard.” Margaret would cringe and think, “Couldn’t she come up with something more creative to say?”

She remembers her mother often told her what to do or how to behave. Ironically, many dictates are ones that her mother never would have followed such as apologizing or making sure she didn’t leave someone out of a group. And when Margaret would challenge her by saying, “But you never apologize…” her mother would retort, “Do as I say, don’t do as I do.” Another oft-used phrase, if Margaret were being scolded and the phone would ring was: “See, the phone is ringing on the truth.” She still doesn’t understand what that is supposed to mean—and neither do her three siblings.

Barbara’s mother was always good at initiating phone calls. She never mastered email and called friends and relatives even when they failed to “pick up the ball.” She wanted to stay in touch so much, yet she often complained to Barbara, “The phone works both ways,” but didn’t “stand on ceremony” and continued to be the caller. She felt it was more important not to be “stubborn like a mule.”

And a few others we often lean on:

  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink;
  • All that glitters is not gold;
  • All for one, and one for all;
  • He has his tail between his legs;
  • And they all lived happily ever after;
  • Read between the lines;
  • What goes around comes around.

Today, one of the most overused clichés is, “Think outside the box.” But during the pandemic, that’s exactly what many of us did to cope and survive. We “pivoted” to new types of jobs and activities. As a result, pivot became a very overused one-word cliché. However, it worked well in our efforts to rejigger our lives during a time when we had to socially isolate, work from home (WFH became a cliché, too), or figure out how to earn a living if we lost our job. There is another lesson learned.

Even though it’s tough not to pull up from our hard drives phrases that are so handy, we have decided it’s time to turn clichés on their heads, flesh them out and use straightforward language instead. We’ll even declare a “No Cliché Day,” or maybe do the opposite and suggest we use clichés all day, being the one to become the one to remember every one ever uttered.

Yet, there are so many ways to do without them because they really don’t “give you the upper hand” or “make a great impression”.

  • In writing, it sounds less sincere when you use stock phrases; it’s also less boring;
  • In power-point presentations, it’s more business-like to avoid them;
  • In a job interview, you’re more likely to make a better impression when you don’t express one but speak more originally and more articulately;
  • On a first date or meeting any new person, you also may get more notice if you forgo them in conversation, or, at least wait for the second date before you say or think, “Don’t kiss on a first date.”

Regardless of when we use clichés or how often, in most instances, they get the point across so well, why do we often fall back on one such as “All’s well that ends well,” a worn-out cliché that even Shakespeare might react to by saying, “Enough is enough.” And so, it is.

Margaret (Meg) Crane lived most of her life in St. Louis, was associate editor of the Jewish Light in the early 70s and from 2001-2012, was senior writer for Jewish Federation. Two years ago, she moved to New York City to be closer to family living there. Barbara Ballinger, originally from New York, lived in St. Louis for 23 years and worked at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She now lives in upstate New York. Follow their blog here.