The Word Guy: How 'cliche' clicked into English
Asked to use “cliche” in a sentence, a student once responded, “My father came home last night with a cliche on his face.” When the puzzled teacher asked the student to define “cliche,” he replied, “a tired, worn-out expression.”
Before you're caught with a cliche on your face, let's examine the origins of five words for overused terms: “cliche,” “stereotype,” “boilerplate,” “banal” and “trite.”
Three of these derive from printing, a process that involves repetition. Until the 1970s, newspapers and other publications were printed from metal plates of type. To make such a plate, compositors would set the type, create a mold of the printing surface and then drop the mold into hot, molten metal.
The mold made a clicking sound when it hit the hot metal, so 19th-century French printers dubbed the image created by this metal plate a “clicher,” from the French verb “clicher” (to click). Because a clicher is the same image printed repeatedly, “cliche” soon acquired an extended meaning of a phrase used over and over again.
French printer No. 1: I'm going to scream if I hear ze boss use ze term “grow ze business” one more time!
French printer No. 2: Oui! That phrase, she is like a clicher!
Another French word for a printed image was “stereotype,” from the Greek “stereos” (solid) and the French “type” (type). “Stereotype” soon became a general term for an image perpetuated without change and, in 1922, was first used with the metaphoric meaning of “a preconceived, prejudicial or oversimplified notion.”
Some parts of newspapers, such as advertisements and syndicated columns, were printed from prefabricated plates that came in ready-to-use form. These plates resembled the heavy iron plates used to make boilers, so printers called them “boilerplates.”
Because the material on these boilerplates was standard and pre-determined, people started referring to conventional text inserted into legal contracts, disclaimers and speeches as “boilerplate.”
“Banal” comes from “ban,” an old word meaning a payment for something owned or used in common, such as a communal mill or oven. Thus, “banal” came to mean “commonplace, ordinary, petty.” “Trite,” which is derived from “tritus,” the past-participle of the Latin verb “tero” (to rub, wear out), means “worn out by constant use or repetition,” as in, “When my father came home from the office last night, he looked trite.”
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.