Russians have a phrase for those clichés that burrow into the mind like brain worms: slova-parazity, or “word parasites.”
Though seldom fatal, the disorder can be devastating, and it has reached epidemic proportions worldwide. Doctors report that victims suffer the loss of original thought and endure hypnotic spells in which they type strings of words we’ve all heard many times before.
Brain imaging reveals these word parasites are hackneyed phrases and variations on pop lyrics, movie lines, and old ad campaigns. Afflicted writers are unable to write the word father without foggily recalling the “Not your father’s Oldsmobile” campaign, causing them to spout phrases like Not Your Father’s GOP or Not Your Father’s Censorship.
In the giddy brains of an afflicted writer, Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas, anymore morphs the Guardian headline about high-tech Japanese potties: “Toto—we’re not on normal toilets any more.”
We? You mean, you and your little dog, too?
But even as writers flee major cities in panic, medical authorities are calling for calm. The condition isn’t hopeless. Here are some tips for de-worming our minds:
1. Diagnose yourself
The word cliché dates to the 1830s, when it was a typesetting term for blocks of words that were frequently used and therefore didn’t have to be set individually. (Stereotype has a similar history.)
Applied to expressions in the 1890s, a cliché is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as “a stereotyped expression, a commonplace phrase; also, a stereotyped character, style, etc.”
If you are a headline writer and you are tempted to riff off a cliché, it’s probably nothing to worry about. A clever turn of a familiar phrase can be amusing at the top of a story or Web page, whereas readers would be baffled if they encountered the creativity of an e.e. cummings there.
But if your first instinct in copywriting is to spout a hackneyed phrase, you may be suffering from word parasites. The first thing that pops into your mind is likely to be a fragment of a song you can’t forget or, perhaps, a line from an old commercial.
2. Remember the three-word rule
In an interview, novelist Joseph O’Neill said he never uses a phrase of three words or more that he has heard before. “Never” is pretty sweeping, but it’s a good general rule for reflection.
As a writer who has also suffered from the tragedy of word parasites, I once wrote a short story in which the wife of a Russian hit man passed “in a cloud of perfume.” Stretching in my chair, I reread the phrase with pleasure, amazed at the subtleties of a creative mind at work.
But Tom Jenks, editor of Narrative Magazine, redlined it: “cliché!” Now hold on, I thought angrily. I’m a professional! I don’t do clichés! Then I sheepishly admitted he was right. Instead I splashed down my character with a perfume that was “cloying and faintly chemical, like a Syrian peach cordial.”
3. Google your words
When in doubt—or even when you are just feeling particularly satisfied with a turn of phrase—try searching it (in quotes) in Google or Yahoo. “Cloud of perfume,” that phrase of Yeatsian eloquence I had coined as my gift to the English language, happens to pull up 78,300 results. Rats.
4. Try online cliché locators
Though some of us regard our word parasites as a source of shame, others embrace the disorder. Or so I gather from Cliche Finder, a search engine that asks, “Are you searching for a cliché using the word ‘cat’ or ‘day’ but haven't been able to come up with one?”
It, and the similar ClichéSite.com, enable you to search individual words to come up with “beat a dead horse” and “easy as pie,” although they seem to be weaker on phrases borrowed from pop culture. But a visit to such a site can even trigger a little soul searching about that witty riff you’d planned off the phrase “Beam me up, Scotty!” Believe me, somebody’s thought of it before.
5. Keep lists
Go ahead. It’s as fun as popping zits. Start listing hackneyed usage and overused phrases, and you’ll become less likely to show signs of this affliction.
For me, the hated commercial cliché, Got Milk? was illogical even before it curdled, begging the answer, “No, and I don’t want any, either.” But it obviously resonates in the worm-riddled collective consciousness, mutating into everything from Got soccer? to Got Germs?
Worse yet are the phrases, deeply irksome when encountered in print, Have I mentioned that ...? (477,000 hits in Google) and Did I mention that ...? (a stunning 43,300,000 results). Why, I always wonder, is the writer asking me? How about hitting control-F and searching your own copy?
I have developed a theory about the way our brains process language. We like to think our writing is being built out of individual words, like Lego bricks. But thoughts actually tend to run in channels of stock phrases and clichés.
Once I sought to find a researcher who would confirm this scientific breakthrough of mine. I was willing to share the glory with a joint byline in a leading journal.
It appeared that plenty of neurologists have studied swearing for what it reveals about the mind and its disorders. But clichés seem to be of less interest. After I issued a query on Help a Reporter Out, a publicist set up an interview for me with a neurologist at a leading California university.
But when I explained what I was after on the phone, there was a long pause. Then he said, “I have no idea why they referred you to me.”
At least he didn’t tell me to go jump in a lake.