In Defense of Clichés (and Other ‘Adjusted’ Words)

 by Miko Johnston

william-james-booksellerI frequent a bookshop in a neighboring town that sells books for and about writers, along with writing-related merchandise (if you’ve been to Port Townsend Washington you know which store I mean). They carry postcards and T-shirts with writing slogans like “Avoid Clichés like the Plague”. Cute. Unfortunately, it denigrates clichés. The meaning of the word has been ‘adjusted’, and unfairly so, IMHO.

Hear me out. I’m not endorsing the constant use of ‘isms’ we now label as cliché. But the word has become synonymous with trite, and that’s unfair. While some clichés may be trite, most are merely unoriginal, though with good reason – they’re shorthand for knowledge that’s been established throughout the ages and shown to be generally true.

clicheWhen selectively used, a good cliché expresses wisdom through metaphor. A stitch in time figuratively saves nine. Actions often do speak louder than words. Sometimes it is a dark and stormy night, but since that opening line shows up more in humorous writing nowadays, we expect it to be funny, not dark. Like cliché, the expression’s meaning has been ‘adjusted’.

Not a unique situation in phrases or in words. So many words have been adjusted – either with new meanings added on, or by having their definition abridged to one exclusive meaning. In one of my older posts (see July 17, 2019) I mentioned how Clarity in writing must include weighing a word’s intended meaning against what it’s perceived to mean.

Also consider how even when the word’s meaning should be clear, many don’t understand what the word means. Take secret, for example. It’s supposed to mean confidential, not to be disclosed, but too many people seem to be unaware of that, otherwise they wouldn’t try to get you to reveal a secret. Isn’t the very meaning of that word to withhold information based on a vow?

Or take the word average. It’s a mathematical term, meant to express the value of a group of data by adding it up and dividing it by the total of their number, yet it’s taken on social connotations. We hear the expression, the average person, or man, or woman, and wonder what that could be. We equate average with falling straight down the middle of a ranking system, not being good or bad, not taking sides. Somehow average has become something to avoid, either as a person or as an opinion. And don’t get me started on how compromise has become synonymous with cowardice.

How about proud? According to my dictionary the noun proud means: feeling deep pleasure or satisfaction as a result of one’s own achievements, qualities, or possessions, or those of someone with whom one is closely associated. Have you heard anyone say they were proud of themselves, even without accomplishing an achievement (which I believe includes making the attempt, working hard and doing your best)? Or proud of a celebrity whom they’ve never met?

As a writer, knowing words – their meaning, and using them in the proper context to express thoughts – has become more challenging as the meaning of words have become ‘adjusted’. Have you noticed this trend? How have you ‘adjusted’ to it?



Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at



This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin

Author: Jackie Houchin

First, I am a believer in Jesus Christ, so my views and opinions are filtered through what God's Word says and I believe. I'm a wife, a mom, a grandma and now a great grandma. I write articles and reviews, and I dabble in short fiction. I enjoy living near the ocean, doing gardening (for beauty and food) and traveling - in other countries, if possible. My heart is for Christian missions, and I'm compiling a collections of Missionary Kids' stories to publish. (I also like kittens and cats and reading mysteries.)

18 thoughts on “In Defense of Clichés (and Other ‘Adjusted’ Words)”

  1. Miko, your excellent post has woken me up to relishing the words I write with more fervor and satisfaction than usual. The gift of wordsmithing – is that word? I guess not since my spellcheck has underlined it in red – and the concepts in your blog are to be celebrated every day. How lucky we are to be writers!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A pleasure to read this well-written post, Miko. I like to use the occasional cliche – which often fits perfectly in the situation – but I hesitate because it has been “used to death.” Thank you for giving me the “okay” to use one now and then and not feel guilty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jackie. Don’t we all use the occasional cliche, and for the same reason? They are brief, concise and to the point. So if we use them occasionally, then why shouldn’t our characters?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been getting lots of “likes” and some great feed back from the places I posted this article, Miko.

    “DH Parker – Thank you for posting this, Jackie! And thanks to Miko Johnston for writing it! The attempt to stamp out these old sayings has created a void in generational ties. They are a wonderful way to pass on wisdom from older members of the family to younger ones. I treasure memories of my grandparents and their cliches. They taught me so much good common sense.”

    “Jessica Arroyo Martinez – I use clichés, and I’m not ashamed! Sometimes they are the best way to say things. I’m of the opinion that, as long as you don’t overuse any one type of word/phrase (clichés, passive words, etc.) it, use whatever words are necessary.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments. We all should feel free to express our thoughts and ideas in the best way we can. Cliches (and passive verbs) may not dazzle the reader but they clearly and concisely get to the point.


    1. Thanks, Jackie. I’m proud of many in my family, and many of my friends. However, my pride stems from something specific, whether their acts of kindness, achievements, or dedication to something important. Their existence is not a source of pride, only love. I respect many celebrities whom I feel excel in their craft, and in some cases for their personal achievements, but that’s not the same as pride.


    1. Thanks, Madeline. I also use cliches in conversation (though judiciously). There’s a good reason why those cliches ‘stuck’ – they’re as true today as they were when cavemen first uttered them (ha ha).


  4. That lack of understanding a cliche shows that people aren’t reading enough older books. And I mean books more than fifty years old when words meant something. Now-a-days, the OMG culture is handicapped because they don’t know a cliche from a hole in the ground… I love it when a writer uses a tried and true cliche with a twist. A malapropism, if you will. And if all this is Greek to a reader… the reader hasn’t read enough of the classics or other well-written literature to hold an interesting conversation. Might I suggest old movies, those black and white ones from the middle of the last century. They still sparkle and are chock full of wit. But if you don’t get the punchline, you are missing the boat…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely agree. I adore malapropisms when cleverly done. And aside from the entertainment value of watching old movies, it’s a wonderful way to study good writing. Back then so much could not be said outright or portrayed. Writers had to depend on words – astutely written dialog – to express or imply what was going on. Great advice, Gayle!


  5. I do ponder words and phrases that I use, and recognize when some are cliches–but sometimes they’re the best fit to express what I want to say. Excellent post discussing them!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. When I wrote that a place was a “a stone’s throw away” from another point, my editor wanted to change it to “close.” I successfully overcame her objection to using a cliche by pointing out (politely, of course!) that a “stone’s throw”was much more picturesque than “close.”

    Miko, thanks for reminding us to celebrate our rich language.


  7. Miko, you make such an excellent point. And, as you say, clichés can be overdone – but the these phrases are used to illustrate a point that creates an immediate picture that we understand. Thank you for a great post,


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