George Orwell wrote six simple writing rules in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
But it’s that first one that I’ve got on my mind. I notice that in work meetings people love to slip in an overused metaphor, like: “it’s all about to kick off, guys – the calm before the storm” or “it might look bleak but just remember: laughter’s the best medicine.”
People use these expressions FOR REAL.
More annoying is the man in the street who ogles you, says: “Alright darlin'” and then asks if the cat’s got your tongue when you don’t answer. No, I want to answer, the cat doesn’t have my tongue, my mouth does – because I’m worried that if I open it and let my tongue work its linguistic magic, your ego will be burst so hard you’ll never be able to look a woman in the eye again. And, in your mind, you were only asking if I was ok.
Another example. An ex boyfriend used to explain every uninspiring utterance as having gone “down like a lead balloon”. The only thing going down like a lead balloon, I wanted to say, is my heart as I realise how limited your lexicon is.
Then there’s the sexist, patronising: “Don’t get your knickers in a twist” for a female who’s worrying about something.
But she might have just got out on the wrong side of the bed. So give her a break.
People are forever falling head over heels in love, reading between the lines and reassuringly telling others that they’re laughing with them, not at them. And of course, I’m partial to the odd cliché – sometimes to be ironic, sometimes because i’m better at writing than speaking. But on the whole, I try to avoid them because they get very boring, very quickly.
I work as a copywriter and occasionally I’ll use a well-known expression to appeal to an audience, as it can endear. But I’ll then never use that same expression with that same audience, because that would be BORING.
So, in conclusion, what I take from Orwell’s rule number 1 (combined with number 6) is that you should avoid clichés like the plague. (wink). Unless it would be funny, sweet, silly, appropriate to use one, just once, in conversation. Or writing.