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The Etymology and Origin of Clichés

Try to imagine the last time you had a conversation that didn’t involve a cliché. We often use these “trite phrases or expressions” without a second thought. But have you ever wondered about the etymology of clichés?

Let’s spend some time looking at the historic events and pieces of literature that helped create the clichés we hear on a daily basis.

What is a Cliché?

Merriam-Webster broadly defines cliché as “anything that is so commonplace that it lacks freshness or offers nothing new in the way of interest or insight.”

Tired phrases and overused storylines both qualify as clichés, though clichés are not exclusive to language. Of course, when a cliché is first introduced, it might be considered an inspiring idea. But after the expression or concept has been used countless times, it loses its originality transforms into a cliché.

The word “cliché” is a French term dating to the early 19th century that meant “to produce or print in stereotype.” A stereotype was a printing plate used to create abundant versions of the same design. Printers heard a “clicking” sound during this process, which gave birth to the onomatopoeic word “cliché.”

By the end of the 19th century, the word “cliché” started to take on the meaning we know today. This word evolved from describing the process of repeating printed designs to describing repetitive and overused phrases or ideas.

The Etymology of Common Clichés

Now that you’ve learned more about the etymology of the word “cliché”, let’s take a closer look at the origins of a few of these overused phrases.

Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

Research from linguist Ben Zimmer shows that this phrase dates to the 16th century. Interestingly, this was originally used in reverse to read “you can’t eat your cake and have it too.” A similar Russian phrase translates to “you can’t sit on two chairs” and is used to express the idea that you can’t have two good things at once.

By the 18th century, this proverb was likely already considered a cliché. Satirist Jonathan Swift, who was known for his irony, included this phrase in his parody Polite Conversation.

Can’t Hold a Candle

This cliché, which refers to someone who is less skillful than another person, has a very literal origin. During the 17th century, apprentices were expected to hold a candle to provide light for their masters. These apprentices were already considered unskilled, so if they couldn’t even hold the candle, they wouldn’t be able to provide any value to the master.

The first recorded use of this phrase was in 1641 when Sir Edward Dering wrote “Though I be not worthy to hold the candle to Aristotle.”

Bite the Bullet

Multiple etymologies exist for this phrase, which means to do what is necessary even if it is hard. One legend suggests that the term developed from the practice of soldiers biting down on a bullet during medical procedures to distract from the pain before anesthetics were available.

Another theory proposes that this developed when the British Empire controlled India. The British army, which included native Indian soldiers, loaded their rifles by biting an animal-fat greased paper cartridge and pouring in the gun powder. Consuming this fat went against the native Indian soldiers’ religious beliefs. The British may have forced these soldiers to “bite the bullet” anyway, which could have helped create this cliché.

Read Between the Lines

Like many of the other clichés on this list, “read between the lines” derived from a literal meaning. Invisible ink, which dates back to Ancient Greece, has been used throughout history to pass secret codes. People who wanted to share a hidden message would often write with invisible ink between the lines of a letter. If the message receiver knew how to uncover the invisible ink “between the lines” they would be able to read the real message.

Dead as a Doornail

Both Shakespeare and Dickens use this expression, which means “not alive, unequivocally deceased.” Wooden doors used to be secured with doornails. After the nail was hammered through the door, the end would be bent and hammered back into the door. This process, known as “clenching a nail” made it almost impossible to use the nail again. In order words, the doornail was dead.

In a Nutshell

Pliny the Elder first used this phrase in 77 AD when he referenced a literal copy of The Iliad that had been written on a tiny parchment and enclosed in a nutshell. But, linguists point to British author William Makepeace Thackeray, for the first figurative use of this expression. In The Second Funeral of Napoleon, Thackeray wrote “here, then, in a nutshell, you have the whole matter.” This cliché is frequently used today to refer to an idea that can be expressed in a few words.

It is fascinating to consider the etymologies of the clichés we use all the time. Many of these developed from literal events but lost their meaning with overuse. What modern phrases will eventually become clichés? Only time will tell.

For more compelling etymology stories, check out the ALTA Beyond Word Blog.

Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.

You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.





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