In Whatever Works, a new film directed by Woody Allen, the anti-hero Boris Yellnikoff is a cantankerous, condescending old pedant with an ego nurtured by his past life as an eminent physicist.
Avoid clichés like the swine flu - the plague is old hat
In Whatever Works, a new film directed by Woody Allen, the anti-hero Boris Yellnikoff is a cantankerous, condescending old pedant with an ego nurtured by his past life as an eminent physicist. Boris is also very amusing. But this quality is so outweighed by personality defects that I am grateful he cannot have been modelled on me. Mr Allen and I have never met and I was, in any case, an atrocious student of physics.
What I do have in common with Boris - played with convincing crustiness, incidentally, by Larry David - is a qualified aversion to clichés. I say qualified because in the course of his Pygmalionesque relationship with a sweet but dim beauty queen, he is caught using one himself. In a flash, Boris gives the response I hope would occur to me in similar circumstances: that a cliché is "sometimes the best way to make one's point".
Inevitably, thousands of websites list or discuss clichés, defined by one of them, http://usingenglish.com, as phrases that are used excessively and have become "a bit meaningless and even irritating". The American author Laura Hayden devotes part of her site to clichés, too, though she is not the first person to advise readers to "avoid them like the plague". Clichés are not, of course, a modern invention. Many of us grew up hearing them dispensed daily by parents. In a more money-driven age, "look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves" has simply become "speculate to accumulate", a ghastly construction but making essentially the same point about the smart use of resources.
A cliché's capacity to irritate depends on the context in which it appears. Few would object to hearing the phrase "as luck would have it" if it were followed by news of a sizeable windfall, but we bridle at the customer service assistant whose impulsive "no problem" means you are about to hear of a fairly big one. Each trade or profession develops a dictionary of clichés. Teachers armed with canes or slippers really did occasionally assure pupils that "this is going to hurt me a lot more than it will hurt you". An elderly friend who, as a reporter, covered numerous major trials probably started a trend for describing the accused as "listening intently in the dock" to the evidence; invariably, he also had people awaiting the jury's verdict in a "hushed courtroom". Sailors can at least claim that a crewman who "knew the ropes" did actually know what each of them was for and was "worth his salt" because salt was the currency in which some of his predecessors were paid.
But where does the partial defence of clichés advanced by Boris Yellnikoff, and endorsed by me, come into this? Well, I am not about to hail my old pal's court reporting as the epitome of fine writing. Nor will I claim that journalists who write that someone "cannot be named for legal reasons" have reached their craft's uppermost heights, as opposed to having reached like robots for a tired phrase that is rarely even mathematically correct since most bans on identification are imposed for a single reason.
Yet if we peer inside the pages of many good newspapers and magazines, we find clichés used or, better still, adapted with telling effect. Last week, a colleague on The Review section came up with "The end of the line", an unoriginal but evocative encapsulation of the collapse of Detroit's car manufacturing industry. Not for the first time, the headline above this column ("How to cut a dash with your hyphens") neatly combined cliché and pun.
The striking use of a cliché, especially in a headline, therefore impresses me just as a well-chosen cliché reflects what Boris is thinking. Whatever Works indeed. But please do not ask me which one he suddenly found himself having to justify. The screenplay was a torrent of words and I have clean forgotten. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at email@example.com