Monday, March 22, 2010

It's too cliche; I won't say it, no, no!

Our advisor on the Scroll recently told us of Randy Michaels, the CEO of Tribune Co. and his list of 119 banned words. Apparently, he decided that these words were too cliche and he was sick of hearing them on his radio station, so now they are no longer allowed to way these words and phrases.

One thing that quite baffles me is how a radio station is to do away with phrases like "after these commercials" and "when we come back." Even though they are used a lot, I don't find them to be cliche because they have a clear meaning that is specifically communicated by the phrase, rather than a lost meaning or image that no one really understands, even though they know what you are saying when you say "from the bottom of my heart."

But I do think that Robert Feder (author of the afore-linked article) has a good point when he wonders why doesn't this CEO have better things to do than come up with a list of words and phrases never to be used again. I've written a few blogs on how journalism and the media are changing and how the structure of newspaper and online news and magazines are being reorganized, and the job market is potentially shrinking or changing in respect to that.

In addition to its effect on media and journalism, this war on cliches is also prevalent in literary writing. I have had several professors dissolve into rants about the inefficiency and overuse of cliches. My beloved George Orwell wrote an article in Tribune in England ranting about cliches as well. Cliches are egregious in journalistic and creative writing.

And understandably. Here are some identifiers of a cliche:

1. You've heard it thousands of times. In some cultures there are certain expressions that get used over and over because everyone knows what you are trying to say when you don't know how to say it or you really don't have anything to say. One of my favorites from the culture I grew up in is "without a shadow of a doubt." I've always tried to picture doubt with a shadow here...but I'm not really getting anywhere with that.

2. No clear image or meaning. Just like "without a shadow of a doubt," most cliches don't really make sense if you think about what the words actually mean.
"Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" was the caption to this picture. I've actually never heard that one before, but it's still a cliche because immediately I picture a baby in a bucket of water being thrown out a window as though it were the contents of a chamberpot. Because it's been a few years since chamberpots were widely used, this image doesn't mean anything to me. I don't get it. What does "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" mean?

3. In combination of the other two, the result of the cliche is that you don't feel any more enlightened after having heard it than you did when you started the conversation (or started listening to the speech or what have you). You never really know what the speaker is on about, and even if they are overcome with emotion, you don't share in this emotion with them, because you're not really sure why/where the emotion is coming from. Cliches are completely inadequate when it comes to expressing anything inside a person's head. I would assume this is because a cliche isn't "your own words."

So was Randy Michaels justified in banning 119 words and phrases?

All I know is that I'd be interested in taking up the challenge of writing or speaking and communicating my ideas clearly with that kind of restriction. That is a purpose of formed poetry after all. It's a matter of being an engineer with words: figuring out what resources you have, using them to form something meaningful, and as your resources diminish, you have to restructure your original layout. And that is half the joy of writing anything.


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