A cliché or cliche (/ˈkliːʃeɪ/ or /klɪˈʃeɪ/) is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.
In phraseology, the term has taken on a more technical meaning, referring to an expression imposed by conventionalized linguistic usage. The term is frequently used in modern culture for an action or idea that is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. Typically pejorative, "clichés" may or may not be true. Some are stereotypes, but some are simply truisms and facts. Clichés often are employed for comic effect, typically in fiction.
Most phrases now considered clichéd originally were regarded as striking, but have lost their force through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said, "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile."
A cliché is often a vivid depiction of an abstraction that relies upon analogy or exaggeration for effect, often drawn from everyday experience. Used sparingly, it may succeed, but the use of a cliché in writing, speech, or argument is generally considered a mark of inexperience or a lack of originality.
The word cliché is drawn from the French language. In printing, "cliché" came to mean a stereotype, electrotype or cast plate or block reproducing words or images that would be used repeatedly; the word seems to have derived from the clicking sound made when blocks were polytyped (a particular form of stereotyping in which the block was impressed into a bath of molten type-metal to form a matrix). Through this onomatopoeia, "cliché" came to mean a ready-made, oft-repeated phrase.
Various dictionaries recognize a derived adjective clichéd, with the same meaning. Cliché is sometimes used as an adjective, although some dictionaries do not recognize it as such, listing the word only as a noun and clichéd as the adjective.
Thought-terminating clichés, also known as thought-stoppers, are words or phrases that discourage critical thought and meaningful discussion about a given topic. They are typically short, generic truisms that offer seemingly simple answers to complex questions or that distract attention away from other lines of thought. They are often sayings that have been embedded in a culture's folk wisdom and are tempting to say because they often sound true or good or like the right thing to say. Some examples are: "Stop thinking so much", "here we go again", and "what effect do my actions have?"
The term was popularized by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China. Lifton wrote, "The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis". Sometimes they are used in a deliberate attempt to shut down debate, manipulate others to think a certain way, or dismiss dissent. However, some people repeat them, even to themselves, out of habit, conditioning or as a defense mechanism.
Examples in literature
In George Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), a totalitarian government has implemented Newspeak, a truncated version of English replete with thought-terminating clichés. Words for "dangerous" concepts, such as "freedom", have been eliminated from the lexicon and the remaining words are ideologically loaded in an attempt to limit their citizens' capacity for independent thought and therefore hamper opposition.
In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann as an intelligent man who used clichés and platitudes to justify his actions and the role he played in the Jewish genocide of World War II. For her, these phrases are symptomatic of an absence of thought. Arendt wrote, "When confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he [Eichmann] was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence."