As writers, we are encouraged not to use cliches, but these phrases started out somewhere in the dim and distant past and had a real meaning, so as a writer of historical fiction, I ask myself ‘was it a cliche at the time about which I am writing?’, and perhaps more importantly, will the reader view it as a cliche, despite it’s historical setting?
Take my latest novel, Revenge, presently out with beta readers. It’s set at the end of the 17th century, and much of it takes place on the high seas. My unfortunate heroes meet up with the pirate John Bowen. Now according to my research, the typical pirate made sure he was well-armed and ready to do immediate damage. It was kill or be killed. He would have cutlasses thrust through his belt on each hip and would preload six muskets and place them in holsters, three to a side, on bandoliers across his chest. He would carry a knife between his teeth to leave his hands free for swinging across on ropes to the victim ship. He went into battle armed to the teeth.
So, is my reader correct in seeing ‘armed to the teeth’ as a cliche? Also, these old ships often ‘sailed close to the wind’ and a sailor had to ‘know the ropes’ to be sure which sail he was raising or reefing. And if they sharpened their blades on stones, they might well have their ‘noses to the grindstone’. Are they cliches?
Similarly, ‘strike while the iron’s hot’ could well be an instruction Mother gives to young Rosie when she’s learning the chain-making trade in The Chainmakers’ Daughter, a novel about the Black Country women who went on a ten-week strike in 1910 for tuppence ha’penny an hour.
‘Slave labour’ is a term that might occur in both these novels. In Revenge, we are brought face to face with the slave trade, and in The Chainmakers’ Daughter, Rosie is seen as a white slave, needing to do two hours’ ‘hard labour’ – there’s another cliche – to earn the price of a loaf of bread upon which her family subsists.
So the question is, when is a cliche a cliche?
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2 thoughts on “When is a cliche not a cliche?”
I think the true meaning of “authors shouldn’t use clichés” only applies when the writer is being plain lazy, as in saying “she jumped a mile” when that’s clearly impossible. The only suggestion I have about “armed to the teeth” is you show a pirate doing just that BEFORE you use the phrase… if possible. It often isn’t without slowing the pace and leaving the reader muttering about “the bl***ing obvious”. 🙂
Yes, I think I did show the arming process in that case. Thanks for your comment, Sarah.