The Right Coast

June 07, 2005
In Defense of Cliches
By Gail Heriot

A phrase as old as Methuselah? Well, yes ... but what of it? Sometimes the attack on cliches can itself be a tedious cliche. Not all familiar turns of phrase deserve to be condemned.

Any good conservative knows that. We are lucky enough to have been born into a world that has already produced century after century of literary, artistic, social, scientific and political insight. We can ignore the legacy and try to re-invent the universe every time we open our mouths. Or we can tap into it in our speech and writing by sometimes using familiar phrases to refer to complicated, otherwise difficult to express ideas in a shorthand way.

Hence, when we say that "there is nothing new under the sun," we don’t just mean that nothing has been new lately. We mean nothing has been new in the thousands of years that have passed since the writing of Ecclesiastes. We hint that we might agree with the Teacher that "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." We subtly salute the faith of our fathers. We even suggest that we might have been alert enough to use an old phrase to make the point that everything is old.

Can it be overdone? Of course. And it frequently is. But it's a mistake to believe that freshness is always the highest virtue in speech and writing. The world’s a bit more complicated than that.

Why am I bringing this up now? I just read an annoying review in the Weekly Standard (subscription required) of Thomas Friedman's new book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century. Entitled "The Cliche Expert: He’s Never Met a Hackneyed Phrase He Didn’t Use–Twice," the review accuses Friedman of having the literary talent of "middling high school student." Its shrill attack on Friedman's word choice is over the top.

I’ve never been a fan of Mr. Friedman, who for all I know is too fond of time worn phrases. But if anything could cause me to run out and buy the book, it would be this review. And aren't nasty and sophomoric book reviews a bit of hackneyed literary genre too?