Monday, July 2, 2012

Such a Cliché

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Hamlet, I.3.73

The other day, the exciting fact of this blawg came up in my class. One student reacted to the news by commenting that “a lot of people don’t know how many clichés come from Shakespeare.” We then briefly discussed an interesting phenomenon: how many of Shakespeare’s once-novel poetic tropes—like Juliet’s observation that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”—are now considered clichés because they are so entrenched in English discourse. That is the truly sad paradox of a cliché. Most expressions deemed clichés came into this world as inventive, metaphoric formulations. Indeed, these expressions were so vivid, so fresh that EVERYONE wanted to use them to capture something vital. Then, because EVERYONE wanted to use them, the expressions soon lost their sheen. They turned trite and shabby. They became linguistic pariah, indicating a failure to “think outside the box” to, uh, borrow a particularly annoying, once oh-so-clever phrase.  

Any decent style manual offering writing advice warns against using clichés. Perhaps, then, it will surprise you to know that a lawyer once told me that the only literary turns of phrase that belong in legal writing are clichés. In his view, clichés operate as effective shorthand. And since legal briefs are not supposed to be literary works, what matters is getting a point across as efficiently as possible. Therefore, in this lawyer’s view, incorporating clichés into legal writing can be a good idea because the reader will “get them.” If you tell a judge in the context of a discovery dispute that “what is good for the goose should also be good for the gander” or urge the judge “not to split the baby” when deciding whether a set of claims should go to the jury, the judge may not be impressed with your originality, but the judge will understand what you want the judge to do. Even more, the judge will see your dispute as a morality play where one result, and only one, will further the interests of justice.

Where do I stand on clichés?

I split that poor baby!

On one hand, the pragmatic advice described above initially made me wince. But the more I thought about it, the point seemed legit. And I’ll even admit to having embraced that advice on occasion—intentionally employing a cliché to try to cut to the chase. On the other hand, clichés should never be a default option—especially if you are trying to get a reader to see something in a fresh light. Nothing makes me cringe more than reading an argument stating in conclusory fashion that “x” is “a slippery slope.” That expression seems like nothing more than a lazy scare tactic, like threatening a kid with the boogie man or lost dessert privileges. In other words, whether a cliché is worth using depends on context, intent, execution.

Even Shakespeare employed expressions that already were (or at least felt like) clichés before he got his hands on them. But he did so for strategic purposes. That is, I would never accuse my man Will of “settling” for a cliché because he couldn’t think of a better way to say something. I can, however, think of instances where he used clichés artfully to convey something about character.

I offer the famous blowhard, Polonius, in Hamlet as an example. Polonius is a member of the Danish court. He hangs out a lot with the King and Queen, forever offering his opinions; and he has two grown kids, Laertes and Ophelia, whom he also likes to advise. In the first Act, we meet Polonius’s son, Laertes, as he is trying to get out of town. Laertes had returned to Denmark to pay his respects to the new (and newly married) King (Hamlet’s uncle, now married to Hamlet’s mother). But Laertes is in a big hurry to get back to Paris. Just before Laertes is able to duck out the door, Polonius corners him to offer up a “few precepts.” Polonius then blathers on for over 20 lines, barraging Laertes with advice about being “familiar, but by no means vulgar” and “neither a borrower nor a lender.” Each precept is rather reasonable if considered independently. But the net result of the litany suggests that Polonius is a tedious, intermeddling old man such that we have no trouble understanding why his son is eager to get the hell out of Dodge. In short, Shakespeare tells us a great deal about Polonius—his pomposity, his cluelessness, his well-meaning, if misguided, intentions—by using clichés.

So, as with many things in the legal context, I am left concluding that the real danger is in hasty, overbroad generalizations. Even when it comes to something as maligned as clichés, “it must follow, as the night the day,” that the best bet is proceeding with caution.

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