Stephen Fry currently has a series on BBC Radio 4 entitled, 'Fry's English Delight',
which is a delightful look at changes to the English language! Yesterday's episode
was a fascinating exploration of Cliché. So good in fact, that I went to all the bother of
transcribing the majority of the episode. Now this actually does serve a purpose as at least one
little bit of it will surely appear in at least a footnote in my doctorate - so, time well spent, I'm
Since I did go to all this fiendishly nerdy trouble for myself, I decided to share. So here (with a
few added hyperlinks to make it good and properly bloggy (is that an adjective? It is now!), for
your delectation, I bring you the abridged:
Hosted by Stephen Fry
Monday, 8 September 2008, 9.00 a.m., BBC Radio 4 (30 minutes’ duration)
NB: The BBC website renders cliché as cliche (whereas I keep the accent ague [the acute accent] mark but don’t italicise it as a foreign word – a half-way house which probably satisfies only me). PS: the webpage for Fry’s English Delight on the BBC website, does, however – as do I , provide cliché with the acute accent but no italics. Hurrah! J
SF: Now, of course, you wouldn’t catch me dead using a cliché, except of course for knowing, ironic purposes. But let me get straight to the point as Shirley Bassey so memorably sang. Cliché is part of language; regrettably unforgettable, and often unforgettably regrettable. It grows like topsy, ineradicable, and probably indefinable. Writer and language expert, Julia Cresswell:
(JC) Cliché is, effectively, whatever anybody says is a cliché; it’s almost impossible to define clichés. That itself is a cliché of writing on clichés.
SF: Julia is author of The Penguin Dictionary of Clichés, although the book has been given a brand spanking new makeover as we’ll hear in a minute. But it is true to say, she is a cliché collector. Tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.
(JC) I wanted to write a book about the history of the weird and wonderful expressions we use. A cliché is something automatic, like something that’s printed out in mass form, over and over again. But one person’s cliché is another person’s everyday turn of phrase or colloquialism, or idiom or quotation. One of the things I think that makes an expression a cliché is if it effectively does your thinking for you. And this, of course, is what politicians exploit, it’s what advertisers exploit, and it’s what bores drive you mad with. And one of the reasons, I think, why we use clichés is actually they’re very efficient. This is particularly obvious if you look at the sort of clichés that are used by journalists or politicians. So they say a lot more because of their social associations and people’s experience of how they’ve been used in the past. They build up to very effective ways of getting at your emotions or channelling your thoughts in certain directions. People get so worked up about clichés and think that they’re bad when perhaps they’re not necessarily all bad? And, certainly, they do give us a history of our culture. Some of them are extraordinarily old, some of them very new.
SF: And almost all of them are borrowed and some of them, to continue in Julia’s poetic vein, are blue. Goodie! First though a definition: from Dr David Penfold of The School of Printing and Publishing at The London College of Communication.
[Printing press sound effects in background] (DP) Cliché is a term that describes the manufacture by printers probably starting in the Eighteenth Century of a version of type which allows them to use this cliché over and over again to keep printing. It’s a version of clicher, so it means ‘to click’. I’m not quite sure whether it was clicking into place or the sound of it, but it came from the idea of when the – French presumably – used to papier-mâché over the type, which had been set, and then they formed a mould and then into the mould they created a metal reproduction of the type so it was no longer moveable, it was, it was fixed then. So like, like this one here, this is a curved one, but you can see the same principle: the type’s been set and so you then have something which is no longer moveable type but it’s it’s something you can keep reproducing, hence the cliché.
(JC) It actually comes from a French verb meaning ‘to click’ and the correct English translation of this is stereotype.
(DP) And you can see why stereo because the type actually stands out, coz it’s three dimensional.
SF: Now, often, derivations aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on; but in this case, the fact that cliché starts life as a printers’ term – a forerunner of ‘cut and paste’, a way of preserving and regurgitating freeze-dried phrases – is worthy of note. So a stereotypical phrase, infinitely reproducible at the click of a printing plate – and later, the click of a mouse. In the days of moveable type, individual letters made of metal – the very physical ingredients of bespoke words – had to be treated as a finite resource: treasured. So, a cliché was a handy ‘cut-out and keep’ one-click-affair; no compositing, no thought, no tying up of language into anything original – the very definition of cliché is coined by people for whom words are a stock in trade. So, I blame the media.
Cliché dates back to Eighteenth Century printing, but the oldest cliché in the book is older even than that.
(JC) The oldest cliché in the book is ‘hither and thither’, which, perhaps, is a bit dated now. But it has reason to be since the earliest example I found goes back to 725 in Old English; which is not the only Old English cliché actually.
SF: But is ‘hither and thither’ a cliché? Does not its great age and old-fashioned vocabulary exempt it from the lingo-bin? I mean, if you are going to turn round and say clichés are in the eye of the beholder, then we’re going to be all over the shop.
(JC) ‘All over the shop’? No, I would call that slang, perhaps, rather than a cliché.
SF: Alright – one man’s cliché is another man’s – no, no that’s no good….
Now it goes into the segment about football-derived clichés
1908 and Tottenham Hotspurs journey at sea and the parrot and then in 1919 the arrival of Arsenal from Woolwich, ‘stealing Hotspurs place’ and ‘sick as a parrot’.
Football journalist Amy Lawrence talks about Jose Mourinho’s
Julia Cresswell talks about how the Internet changed her dictionary – from a reference dictionary, changed to a thematic collection of clichés. Reference books need to be narrative now within the publishing industry JC reveals. What to call it and initially going with ‘The Best Thing since Sliced Bread’ but it would be very difficult to produce an attractive eye-catching cover for. The designer came up with a great illustration of ‘The Cat’s Pyjamas’ and they went with this instead.
Goes into expressions coined to mean ‘excellent’: The Cat’s Pyjamas; The Bee’s Knees; The Dog’s Bollocks:- trends and derivations explored.
SF: This turns out to be a rare example of a vulgarity and a piece of jargon and a slang term and a cliché and a pictogram! David Penfold of The
[Printing press sound effects in background] (DC) ‘The dog’s bollocks’, which is a colon followed by a hyphen, is interesting because it was very popular at one time, but nowadays I don’t think you’d find a publisher’s style that would include that:- it just wouldn’t be acceptable. It’s used in some languages, I mean the French use it a lot, but in English you won’t find that colon followed by a dash that printers used to call ‘the dog’s bollocks’ used any longer.
SF: Not only did this, or rather these, fall into disuse in the closed world of printing, it didn’t work very well in everyday speech.
(JC) The problem with this was because it got shortened to ‘the bollocks’. But the problem is if you’re saying, ‘That’s the bollocks’ – meaning ‘That’s really good’ – it’s very easily confused with, ‘That’s bollocks!’ meaning it’s rubbish. And I think that’s probably what led to it dying out.
SF: The world’s first self-cancelling cliché. But, ‘Dear Feedback, Why is that nice Mr Fry stooping to such low allusions?’ Point taken. Let’s go upmarket. Sportswriter Amy Lawrence says, tellingly, about the repetitiousness of putting into print accounts of even the best football.
SF: And there’s only so many ways of saying ‘To be or not to be’; Catch-22 really. That, by the way, is a reference to the paradoxically existential dilemmas of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Heller’s Yossarian. And a reference to the fact that a brilliant, life-changing line of poetry or novel, can, by dent of association football style repetition, have a simultaneous life as a clunking great cliché. And it’s enough to make you want to draw a little moustache on the Mona Lisa, it really is. Cliché collections in one form or another have been amassed to serious effect by the great lexicographer Eric Partridge, the Eighteenth Century satirist Jonathan Swift, and the novelist Gustav Flaubert. Dr Liz Barry is Senior Lecturer at the
(LB) The critic Hugh Kenner writes about Flaubert, as he writes about later writers like Joyce and Beckett, and calls them Stoic comedians. They’re commentators who are looking at society and thinking about the dilemma of writing in an age of a print culture, where everything that one says has been written somewhere before, where literature is distributed immediately to the masses. The problem that Roland Barthes, the critic, calls déjà lu – um, not déjà vu anymore – but déjà lu, already read; everything that one says has been already read somewhere. And how does the writer respond to this situation? And one thing that these writers are exploring is the way in which their characters are trying to live their life [sic] by the clichés that they read in books. They are trying to apply these received ideas to the world and there’s always a gap they never quite fit – their experiences never quite fit to the experiences that literature tells them about. So Madame Bovary is destroyed – you know, psychologically and literally – in the end by the fact that her love affairs don’t match up with the romantic clichés that she reads about, that she can’t reproduce those experiences in her own life. Flaubert’s very aware that the writer isn’t immune to cliché, so he writes about the way in which writers are afraid to open his [sic] dictionary in case they find their own words – or what they thought were their own words – there. Or he comments on the way in which the, the banalities that he collects amusedly in his books he actually also finds in his own love letters to Louise Colet. So he is very, very aware that that the writer in some sense is in crisis in not ever being able to produce the perfect new idea. I think that we hear the dead hand of the printing press in language. As we know, the etymology of cliché is connected to the sounds that the printing press makes, the click that the printing press makes.
SF: Like I say, I blame the media. All clichés, poetic and otherwise, start life as metaphors. And, according to linguist Dr Guy Deutscher of
(GD) So the reason why clichés remain clichés and grate rather than just being ground down like most common metaphors, is that they were so powerful probably to start with that they refuse to bio-degrade and they just pollute the landscape; like the big lumps of plastic that pollute the beach.
SF: But if these nasty looking lumps of plastic can be recycled in a really clever way, if they have a second life as art – how do we rate them? ‘Tell me, where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?’ Famous, magical lines from the casket opening scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Too famous perhaps for James Joyce’s Bloom, the advertising man in Ulysses, whose head is teeming with this kind of stuff. He can’t resist a recycling opportunity and he already has ‘fancy’ and ‘bread’ at the back of his overdriven mind because of the enchanting smell from a local bakery. This is his instinctive pun about his own fancy and where it is bred:
(?) ‘Tell me where is fancy bread? At Rourke’s the baker’s it is said.’
SF: A pun, a slogan, a satire on slogans, a satire on Twentieth Century culture, an image from inside a man’s head, a nifty bit of Shakespeare recycling. Dr Liz Barry:
(LB) Joyce is playing there with a Shakespearean allusion, but also showing us how Bloom makes his own meanings. For Joyce as well, these very constrained and very debased kinds of language are brought to life again and, and given all sorts of significance in his writings. In one sense he’s not frightened of the circulation of these meanings, because in the rich and rather crazy world of Bloom’s head, the associations that they will have will be completely unexpected and completely individual and personal to Bloom. Um, so there is a way in which the, the individual citizen can resist the kind of homogenising influence of advertising – you know, wanting to make us all the same, wanting to make us buy the same product at the same time everyday or same time every week. The big question about cliché perhaps is that it questions the distinction between the highbrow and the lowbrow. For Joyce’s Bloom, the allusions to Shakespeare and the advertising jingles are on a par in his mind, they’ve become detached from their context – they are circulating in his mind; they’re chiming off all sorts of things that he’s encountering in everyday life. So there’s a question about how one preserves the idea of high culture – and this is a question that is exercising the critics of postmodernity – how does one preserve a distinction between high and low culture if the idea of originality is no longer as powerful as it once was. If there is this anxiety about everything already – the already read – um, everything always having been read before – how does one create that or preserve that distinction between the high and the low? And does it matter?
SF: Does it? Search me. They always say, though this is a bit of a cliché, radio has the best pictures. So think Andy Warhol’s self-conscious cliché, the repeated silk-screen print of Marilyn Monroe: click, click, click.
[Opening chords of The Kinks’ ‘Till the end of the day’ resound]
SF: Makes you think, eh? Or not. Did any of this matter or was it just excuse for me to say ‘bollocks’ a lot, at the end of the day? There, I’ve said it.
[Kinks: ‘Baby, I feel good / from the moment I rise / feel good from morning…till the end of the day / till the end of the day]
SF: I’ve left it till the end of the programme, if not the day,
[Kinks: ‘From when we get up till we go to sleep at night / You and me we’re free / We do as we please, yeah / from the morning…till the end of the day / till the end of the day /yeah]
Fry’s English Delight was:
Presented by Stephen Fry
Produced by Nick Baker
And at the end of the day it was A test bed production for Radio 4 © 2008
Transcribed by August Jordan Davis,