Clichés versus Categories

I looked up the word “cliché” to figure out where the word comes from, and whether it means what I think I am writing about: First, the origin: French, literally, printer's stereotype, from past participle of clicher to stereotype, of imitative origin. First Known Use: 1892

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And now, the definition: Acliché (from French, klɪ'ʃe) is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel. The term is generally used in a negative context.

“Overuse in a negative context” is what distinguishes the use of cliché from the use of a category, and what makes one grating to hear.

As I have already written in my posts about concepts, categorization is an incredible mental ability -- one of my favorite topics to study in psychology.  Babies can perform a very cool act from a very early age, which is that they can discern that the “thing” over there is a rabbit and that the rabbit is not the same “thing” as the grass it is sitting on or the building it is sitting next to.  Then, they figure out quickly that most things with those same floppy ears and cottontails are also rabbits, and should all be treated in more or less the same way.  And then they get sophisticated and learn that jackrabbits are not cottontails, and that the former will never be their pet. 

This capacity, to categorize, is a liberating ability that allows us to go on with our lives and learn new things such as how to solve differential equations.

Clichés are not sophisticated or cool mental operations, as they are by definition repetitions of notions that once had meanings or provided insight but no longer do.  Furthermore, when used in social interactions and conversation they serve as attractor states in that they divert attention from nuance; they suck up novel, interesting information and turn it into the banal.  The problem, the thing that makes clichés less useful than categories, is that they claim to accurately summarize the personality, intelligence, history, and motivations of a group of people.  Baguettes and berets do not mean bread and hats, they mean “stuck-in-past-ways” and “chauvinism.”  Hamburgers and hotdogs do not mean meats on a bun, they mean “capitalism” and “poor taste.”  Pasta means “lower class” or “unsophisticated.” 

Thus, clichés mostly do not help you learn to solve the differential equation of culture and meaning; they mostly turn you into a typewriter that bores the people from your own culture and alienates people from other ones. But notice that I have been writing, “when used in conversation” and “in social interaction.”  The reason I write this is because I also think that clichés can, in a non-sophisticated and intuitive way, help to direct behavior successfully in the way that non-social categories do.  

When not used in acts of derision or in (acts of derision within) musical theater, clichés could prevent you from spending too much time doing the wrong thing FOR YOU.  Republican politicians tell you in a facile way that you should not like “French-style socialism”?  Without understanding it, you can just go ahead and not move to France if you wish.  François Hollande doesn’t like American-style capitalism, and you like him?  Don’t pick up and move the other way.  Save everyone the trouble, yourself above all, from having to figure out the details. Use your cliché as a synthesis of your intuition and act on it.

Just don’t write a child-raising treatise or the next novel that reads like a typewriter ribbon from 1920, and expect it to seem insightful to anyone.

Paula NiedenthalComment