05 Welcome to Clichéville

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It is surely a matter of urgency at this point in time that we address the pressing issue of why our speech is riddled with clichés. To be honest, I’ve no clue myself.

How many did you count there? Four? Five? Look, I’m as charitable as the next man. Six. But when our language gets clogged with cliché, isn’t that a searing indictment of how we treat our mother tongue? Seven. Eight.

Obviously some clichés are so self-evidently daft they’re worth preserving. Thinking outside the box, for example, or pushing the envelope are such entertainingly surreal concepts that nobody now would ever dare to be caught thinking inside a box or giving an envelope a good pulling.

Clichés are like items of fashion. On first experience, they’re the must-have phrase we must all use. Blue sky thinking was a real catwalk model in the Spring 1993 Cliché Collection. Now it has all the credibility of a cardigan from C&A.

So why do people use them all the time?
Some linguists suggest that clichés act as a sort of social binding to show we’re all speaking the same language… sorry, singing off the same hymn sheet. Really? Or do we just use clichés out of laziness, because it’s easier to parrot a phrase someone else made up than refresh the way we speak ourselves?

A good example of this is the phrase my pal Wilson invented. Whenever a conversation is veering towards tedium, he says, “Well, you know: flat fish swim in shallow waters.” This means absolutely nothing (as well as being piscatorially untrue), but it’s greeted every time with murmurs of agreement and nodding of heads all round.

And this relates to business how…?
We should all be in the business of debunking loose language. Bullshit Bingo enthusiasts have served the cause well. Check out www.dack.com/web/bullshit.html if you need to leverage some extensible cross-platform linguistic paradigms any time soon.

More seriously, you may wish to examine the language you use in, say, the bid documents you write. I read a wondrous phrase in one I was editing last week. The job involved designing a research laboratory where clinical cleanliness was paramount. The writer explained that “a rigid and fixed fenestration system will be deployed to ensure the absence of problematical external dust transmission.” This, when I enquired, translated as: “The windows don’t open, so no dust gets in.”

Stick your own examples of nonsense below and let others share your breeze. I’d be over the moon if you did. In all fairness.

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember



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