133: Idiom and Cliche28 August, 2009
What’s the difference between idiom and cliché? Refer to books on usage, and dictionaries, and other sources — various fine distinctions are offered, but most seem to be distinctions without a difference. And look at dictionaries of idioms and dictionaries of clichés — their entries frequently overlap.
Consider this view: a cliché is an idiom that hasn’t settled into the language, that still feels uncomfortable to us, and in which the literal meaning still jars against the metaphorical. In personal terms, a cliché is a turn of phrase that didn’t exist when you were young. If you grow up with a cliché it sounds natural; like an idiom. The literal meaning doesn’t intrude.
“O’clock” is an idiom: we don’t think of actual, physical clocks when we say “o’clock”, even when we’re staring straight at one. When the sun is directly overhead on June 22, it is still twelve “o’clock” even if there’s no clock within miles. At some point in history, “o’clock” [“of the clock”] must have sounded strange; must have sounded like a cliché once more than a few people used it.
As a fiction writer, a cliché substitutes for original thought and should be avoided in third-person narrative, where there are suitable alternatives. Idioms are unobjectionable, but you might try to find something original to say instead. Dialog is different: spoken language thrives on both idiom and cliché; how they are used or not used in a story can help define character.