‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’ Is Orwell right to make this rule? One recent blog post on clichés, This metaphor aint dead, it’s just restin’ claims that writing without ‘dying’ phrases is in fact unattainable; and even if it wasn’t, the results of such overwhelming linguistic inventiveness would be ‘utterly exhausting to read’.
Sustaining freshness in metaphors is difficult but it is not unattainable. Many writers have attained it. One commenter on the post gives the example of P.G Wodehouse whose series of unusual metaphors makes his writing hilarious (‘I turned to Aunt Agatha, whose demeanor was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back’). Laying down writing with innovative metaphors seamed throughout is a hallmark of many great writers, from Will Shakespeare to Will Self. Reading these writers does not exhaust us. Far from it.
Dead is not dying
Besides, when you want to avoid cliché, the alternative is not only to think up new metaphors; equally it can be to write plainly with no allusion at all, or at least employ what Orwell called ‘dead’ metaphors. His fight was not against those metaphors that have been around the longest, sparing those that have ‘in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness’.
Orwell did not advocate constant inventiveness; he rather wished us to avoid sounding hackneyed. Language should be alive or dead – but not dying pathetically from our lips. The blog post misses this distinction, arguing against ‘dead and dying’ metaphors as though they are the same thing.
Cliché is not always bad
Where I have sympathy with the author though is that he questions the refrain that cliché is always wrong. Clichés can be useful. I may put down a novel that raps out tired and familiar phrases in the first chapter but when I’m buying something with my credit card details online, I want the instructions to be as plain, dull, and even tiresomely familiar as possible.
From a psychological perspective, familiarity can breed trust. If you say things in a way familiar to them people are more likely to believe what you say. I am not sure that cognitive fluency can be applied so readily to cliché in language but perhaps it is one of the reasons that social tribes – whether religious communities, music scenes or firms of SEO consultants – all end up using the same phrases and idioms.
I even feel sorry for football pundits. They are criticised for the clichés they use perhaps more than any other profession, and yet, what can they say the thousandth time they have to answer the same question about a game that throws up few variables on which to comment? It was a win or a draw. There were refereeing decisions that seemed unfair. Some players played well, others didn’t. What is there to say?
Even if all pundits could do a Stuart Hall (or imagine PG Wodehouse reporting Wigan versus Blackpool on a Saturday afternoon), how many listeners would then start to miss the point? Sports clichés may be some of the deadliest around but supporters interested in the results know exactly what they mean straight away. They provide information when information is due. At the end of the day, you know where you stand.
[UPDATE: Seth Godin just blogged about the balance between familiar clichés and the innovations that make you stand out.]
Context, context, context
As ever, discussion about any rules comes down to context.
If I am writing the copy for a company’s web site there are places where fresh images are desirable, such as to describe their unique selling points, to grab readers’ attention or to create a unique tone of voice for their site. But there are plenty of places where dead clichés will do just fine: such as describing conventional processes that need to feel familiar like making contact, paying for a product or service, or describing services in ways that potential customers understand.
On this blog I use cliché all the time, deliberately (mostly) hoping to create a conversational tone. But when writing fiction I try much harder to bleach the creeping mould of familiarity, to increase the chances that one day people will actually stick with and enjoy 350 pages of my prose.
Where I find Orwell’s rule helpful is not as an absolute linguistic truth, but as an internal check whenever I am about to trot out a well-used phrase. Orwell’s dictum makes me think as I write: would this be better with a new metaphor? Or should I use the old one on purpose, for effect (perhaps ironically dude)? Or would it be better to strip the sentence down to plain words without disturbing my readers on a visual level at all?
In other words, Orwell was right to make the rule, but that doesn’t mean we have to obey it.